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Feds may push Savannah harbor dredging project

Frustrated with South Carolina’s opposition to a major Georgia port expansion, federal officials are again threatening to approve the $650 million project without Palmetto State authorization.

In court documents filed last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said exemptions in U.S. law would allow the federal government to bypass South Carolina and proceed with the Savannah harbor deepening project.

“The corps is not prohibited from invoking one of these exemptions,” the documents said, noting that should opposition delay the work, the government would have “the basis for an exemption.”

Corps officials previously have mentioned going over South Carolina’s head, but the issue resurfaced Wednesday in a Columbia courtroom.

“What you’re seeking to say is .... you may proceed under those exemptions in order to escape being held up,” Administrative Law Judge Ralph King Anderson III said.

Anderson is trying to decide whether to uphold a water-quality approval permit the Corps and the Georgia Ports Authority need to move forward with the Savannah dredging. Conservation groups and a state agency have appealed the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s approval.

They say the dredging will lower water quality in the Savannah River, degrade a rare riverside marsh system and kill wildlife. Lawmakers say the Savannah deepening project could set back efforts to attract larger ships at Charleston, South Carolina’s main port.

Georgia officials, who say their project is being done with the environment in mind, say that it could begin by late 2012 but that the project is in jeopardy because of legal issues with South Carolina.

In certain circumstances under U.S. law, however, the Corps can get around environmental rules that otherwise would apply for dredging marshy coastal areas, such as at Savannah. Part of the federal Clean Water Act allows for an exemption if a dredging project must be done to “maintain navigation,” such as at ports.

Corps attorney Ben Clark said the ultimate decision on an exemption that would bypass South Carolina must be made by the Secretary of the Army. He had no timetable on when such a decision would be made.

Clark declined comment after Wednesday’s hearing in Columbia, but opponents of the dredging had plenty to say.

“It seems as if the Georgia Ports Authority and the Corps of Engineers have already concluded that they can build this project without a South Carolina water-quality certificate,” said Blan Holman, an attorney representing environmental groups that oppose the dredging. “We think they are wrong. It is disturbing to see them act as if South Carolina law doesn’t matter.”

Wednesday’s hearing was about whether the Corps and Ports Authority had violated the law and begun moving ahead with the project before the water quality permit dispute is resolved. Anderson did not issue a ruling.

The Georgia-South Carolina dispute is similar to a long-running legal fight over using federal exemptions to bypass state jurisdiction for dredging the Delaware River. That project has been slowed for years by opposition from environmentalists and from the state of New Jersey. That case is pending before a federal Appeals Court.