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Monday, April 21 2014 @ 01:03 AM EDT

Judge rejects amending Savannah dredging suit

Environmental IssuesBy BRUCE SMITH - Associated Press - CHARLESTON, S.C. -- A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that both the Georgia Ports Authority and South Carolina's Savannah River Maritime Commission may take part in a lawsuit challenging the $650 million deepening of the river shipping channel. However, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel denied a motion by environmental groups seeking to expand the lawsuit to address with what South Carolina environmental laws should pertain to the project. So the case will center on the original complaint that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs a South Carolina pollution permit before proceeding. The denial of the environmental groups' motion was without prejudice, meaning it could be raised again at a later time.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Savannah Riverkeeper, based in Augusta, Ga., and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. Both the Georgia Ports Authority and the Maritime Commission later moved to intervene in the suit, the Ports Authority on the side of the corps, the Maritime Commission on the side of the plaintiffs.

Supporters of the deepening project say it is needed so the river can handle the larger container ships that will be calling at Atlantic ports when the Panama Canal is expanded in 2014. Environmental groups in both South Carolina and Georgia originally sued, saying the deepening work needs a permit because toxic cadmium from river silt will be dumped on the South Carolina side of the river.

The plaintiffs wanted to expand the suit, noting the corps has said repeatedly it can proceed without South Carolina approval under exemptions in the Clean Water Act.

The plaintiffs said both the Department of Health and Environmental Control and Gov. Nikki Haley cited the corps' position as part of the rationale for giving state approval to the project. Their filing quoted Haley speaking last fall at the Charleston Propeller Club.

"I have in writing, your DHEC board had in writing, a letter from the Corps of Engineers saying we don't need a permit from DHEC to give Georgia their dredging," Haley was quoted as saying. "It's not that they didn't need it. They were gonna do it anyway."

Both the corps and the Georgia Ports Authority opposed amending the suit, noting in court filings late Monday that it was premature and no final decision has been made on whether the exemptions will be used.

Editor's Comment: All of the local ports on the East Coast, from Texas to Boston, are preparing for the possibilities of new business and opportunities created by the expansion of the Panama Canal, which has been called a "game changer." The federal government has stepped in to provide some funding for dredging and the expansion of port facilities, but the down side is that there are many ports vying for and competing for those funds. In this case, there are environmental concerns. So, the expansion of the Panama Canal creates a conflict over toxic river sludge from the bottom of the Savannah river between South Carolina and Georgia...

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