Members of the Savannah River Maritime Commission voted Monday to take legal action against the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for issuing a permit allowing the Georgia Ports Authority to deepen the Savannah River leading to the Port of Savannah.
"We believe that DHEC has overstepped the boundary by issuing this permit and we're going to take them to court basically," said Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkley), a member of the commission.
They also passed a motion stating that the permit issued by DHEC was improperly issued and is not effective. Grooms and other members of the commission argue that they should have the authority to issue the permit, not DHEC.
The commission was created in 2007 by the S.C. legislature to make decisions “in all matters pertaining to the navigability, depth, dredging, wastewater and sludge disposal, and related collateral issues in regard to the use of the Savannah River as a waterway for ocean-going container or commerce vessels.”
"It was the responsibility of this commission and its legislative charge to be not only involved, but to also have authority in granting permits," Grooms said.
If Georgia is allowed to deepen the river, South Carolina would face economic and environmental consequences, members of the commission argued.
Deepening the river would allow larger ships into the Port of Savannah.
The Port of Charleston has been growing in the past few years, said Grooms, but won't be able to compete with a Port of Savannah that can receive large container ships.
"What's at stake? Literally, billions of dollars of economic activity," Grooms said. "One state's going to enjoy it at the expense of another."
Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston County) said DHEC's decision is a major blow to South Carolina's economy. While Charleston's port has suffered from poor leadership recently, the Georgia Port Authority has been moving ahead in modernizing the Savannah Port, Ford said. DHEC's decision will just make it easier for Georgia to get ahead.
"We've gotten further and further behind," Ford said. "Now our board has given the go ahead to benefit the state of Georgia. We need to build our port, not be looking out for the state of Georgia."
Ford, as well as members of the commission, are questioning Gov. Nikki Haley's decision, saying she's not looking out for the state's interests.
"Nikki Haley is 1,000 percent wrong," Ford said, "and all of (the DHEC board members) need to be replaced."
But Haley defended the Charleston Port Monday during a jobs announcement in Fountain Inn.
“Charleston will be the best port in the country," Haley said. "I’m not going to stop until it is. I’m absolutely not worried about our competitiveness.”
State senators and commission members are not only worried about the negative economic impact on the state. If DHEC's decision holds up, South Carolina will see a negative environmental impact as well, they say.
Plus, the deepening of the Port of Savannah "puts the nail in the coffin of the Jasper County Port," said Sen. Chip Campsen (R-Berkeley and Charleston counties).
"The Jasper County Port is a project that has seen considerable time, funds and effort in recent years," Campsen said.
Campsen called DHEC's decision "bewildering."
"It took me completely by surprise," he said. "I never would have thought that DHEC would ignore the science on the environmental impact and the negative economic impact and put the final nail in the coffin of the Jasper Port — they did all three."