SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia Port officials and a South Carolina agency agreed Wednesday to a proposed settlement seeking to end lawsuits between the neighboring states over a $652 million plan to deepen the shipping channel to the busy Port of Savannah, though other parties also must accept the compromise before it can take effect.
A settlement would potentially clear two big obstacles Georgia officials have faced in trying to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River. They want to make room for supersized cargo ships to reach the nation's fourth busiest container port in Savannah after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion in 2015.
A deal would settle disputes with state officials in South Carolina, which shares the river with Georgia and operates a major competing port in Charleston. It also would settle with conservation groups that sued in U.S. District Court arguing that allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the Savannah harbor from 42 to 47 feet would cause unacceptable environmental harm.
"This settlement will bring to an end the immediate dispute between Georgia and South Carolina and allow the corps to proceed," Jamie McCurry, government relations officer for the Georgia Ports Authority, told the agency's board members Wednesday before they voted to approve the deal. He noted it would also settle the suits by three groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The Savannah River Maritime Commission, a South Carolina state agency involved in the lawsuits, also met Wednesday and agreed to sign the settlement, said Dean Moss, the agency's chairman. Neither party would comment on details of the compromise, pending the deal's approval by the conservation groups and the Army Corps. The settlement would then go to a federal judge for final approval.
Copies of the proposed settlement were given to reporters. Most of the terms would require the Army Corps to perform additional environmental monitoring and mitigation. The Georgia Ports Authority would pay more than $25 million for extra conservation efforts and transfer ownership of 2,000 acres of salt marsh to state officials in South Carolina.
The settlement would also give South Carolina agencies and environmental groups a chance to back out of the entire deal and return to court if a test run of equipment designed to replenish oxygen in the water fails to work.
Chris DeScherer, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston, S.C., declined to comment Wednesday afternoon. Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Army Corps in Savannah, said in an email that the agency might have an announcement in "a few days."
"What we can tell you is that all parties did their best to negotiate a reasonable settlement," Birdwell said.
The settlement emerged after court-ordered mediation talks during the last five months.
The suing environmental groups argued that deepening the shipping channel would dredge toxic cadmium from the river floor and dump it on the South Carolina side. Under the settlement, the Army Corps would perform weekly monitoring of cadmium concentrations at disposal sites and report results to South Carolina environmental agencies for a year.
Conservationists also were concerned about plans to place large bubblers along the river designed to inject oxygen into the water to offset an expected reduction in dissolved oxygen that fish need to breathe. The settlement calls for a 59-day test of the oxygen injectors before dredging could begin in areas where fish would be most affected. Environmental groups and South Carolina agencies would have 30 days to review the results. They would be allowed to scrap the entire settlement if the oxygen injectors don't work.
"We believe our mitigation plan is solid and this settlement agreement will allow us to demonstrate that is the case," McCurry told the Georgia Ports Authority board.
The deal requires South Carolina's agencies to issue the Army Corps state environmental permits for the harbor deepening. Georgia has already issued its permit and the federal government gave final approval to the project last fall.
Even if the settlement is approved, the project is still awaiting substantial federal funding, which has been tough to get with Washington focused on budget cuts and deficit reduction. President Barack Obama last week recommended $1.28 million for the project in the upcoming fiscal year — far from the $70 million to $100 million Georgia officials have said is needed for the first year of construction.
After the lawsuits were filed, Army Corps officials said they were prepared to argue permits from either state are unnecessary because the federal agency has overriding authority to ensure the waterway is navigable to ships — even if that means the water must be deepened to accommodate larger vessels.
A federal judge in the Northeast agreed with that argument by the corps in 2010 in a legal dispute among Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey over plans to deepen more than 100 miles of the Delaware River.