Opinion: DHEC says ‘Godspeed’ to Georgia Ports
Ten years ago the Port of Charleston was among the busiest in the United States, South Carolina’s unemployment rate was around 5 percent, and Georgia ports didn’t rank among the top 10. Today Savannah’s port is No. 4, and Charleston ranks 11; our unemployment is nearly 11 percent, while Georgia’s is lower.
Part of the reason for the turnabout is that Georgia aggressively focused on port enhancement: Rail connectivity improved, warehousing space increased, marketing broadened.
This competition — and the expansion of the Panama Canal — brought a renewed sense of urgency here. Officials sought competitive rail access near our port terminals. Developers announced plans to build more than 20 million square feet of warehousing and distribution space. New leadership, including SPA President Jim Newsome, whose professionalism and esteem within the global maritime community is second to none, has boosted morale and buoyed expectations in the business community and along our waterfront. Construction of a state-of-the-art terminal at the former Charleston Navy Base is underway, and the port is investing $1.3 billion to improve facilities.
Our hard work is paying off. Last year, shipping volumes increased across the board.
A wider, deeper Panama Canal is an industry game-changer. And one of Charleston’s biggest advantages — its naturally deep harbor — allows us to capitalize on it. In an enterprise where speed, volume and efficiency are key, deep water is what the SPA terms “international trade’s new currency.”
South Carolina’s ports are indispensable to our economy, facilitating nearly $46 billion in economic output and supporting 260,000 jobs. The Upstate is home to more than 112,000 port-related jobs; the Midlands, nearly 52,000. In Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties alone, the number is over 50,000.
Competition serves the ports of Charleston and Savannah well. But now things have become more complicated. In September, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control denied the Army Corps of Engineers a permit to dredge the Savannah River and deepen the harbor at Savannah. The Corps needed South Carolina’s permission because the river is a resource we share with Georgia. After extensive study, DHEC scientists concluded that dredging would harm wetlands and water quality and threaten endangered species. The dredging dramatically lowers the oxygen levels in the river, threatening every living thing within in it. DHEC also noted that the corps’ application may not have included alternative dredging plans that could be less damaging.
Based on these and other objections — there were at least eight — the permit was denied.
But because deep water is crucial, Georgia officials asked DHEC to reconsider. In a move that was unwarranted based on the facts — and unprecedented based on its ramifications — the board agreed to issue the permit.
It’s not clear why DHEC suddenly reversed course when the science is definitive. The only new concessions of any note are a stipulation that Georgia will pay for controversial injectors to pump oxygen into the river if the corps lacks funding, and a promise that Georgia will preserve or transfer to South Carolina about 1,600 acres of marshland.
What’s even more astounding than the bargain-basement cost of this about-face is that DHEC caved completely on two of the main reasons for originally objecting: the question of whether the corps’ proposed oxygen injectors will even work (think giant aquarium air pumps), and a lack of evidence that the corps adequately studied whether there’s an alternative to dredging this part of the river.
DHEC endorsed unproven science, sanctioned the likely ruin of the river’s unusual freshwater marshes and may enable saltwater to intrude upon drinking water. And it granted Georgia a gateway through which billions of dollars in new port-related investment can flow.
As a small business owner, I trust and appreciate competition. But no business owner would voluntarily give a competitor an unfair advantage. That’s why it’s so difficult to understand why DHEC gave Georgia license to lower our standard of living. When Georgia sought permission to affect our quality of life, South Carolina’s environmental protection agency said “Godspeed.”
Mr. Grooms is a Berkeley Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.