Bill Said to Protect Savannah Harbor Deepening Hits Bump in S.C. Senate
By Sarita Chourey
Morris News Service
May 7, 2012 — COLUMBIA -- Environmentalists welcomed an action in the South Carolina Senate this week that slowed the progress of a bill that the U.S. Corps of Engineers is using as ammunition against a legal challenge to the Savannah harbor deepening.
Two Republican senators helped thwart their colleagues' efforts to give preferred status to a bill that the corps is leaning on in its call for dismissal of the Southern Environmental Law Center's suit against Georgia's $653 million dredging project.
Senators Tom Davis of Beaufort County and Chip Campsen of Charleston voted with Democrats Tuesday to defeat the motion to give special order status to a proposed change to the Pollution Control Act, H. 4654. The bill would, which has already passed the House, would in part, repeal private citizens' right to file suit over pollution.
The window for bills to become laws is closing, as lawmakers eye the June 7 end date for the second year of the S.C. Legislature's two-year General Assembly.
Davis and Campsen said the bill "would undermine a currently viable means by which the state of South Carolina could contest the Georgia Ports Authority's Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (which) calls for dumping dredged waste on the Jasper port site until the year 2060 , thus rendering that economic project stillborn, and inflicting irreversible environmental damage on the Savannah River and the surrounding ecosystem."
Georgia has been pursuing harbor expansion plans for more than 10 years in anticipation of larger container vessels passing through the expanded Panama Canal in 2014. The plans have drawn heat from most of the S.C. General Assembly, who fear it will wreck the river's ecosystem, kill plans for a bi-state ocean terminal in Jasper County, and hurt the Port of Charleston's competitive position.
"We were pleased with the special order vote," said said Patrick Moore, legislative director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League on Friday. "We appreciate the recognition that this is the most important environmental bill of the session."
Among those who had voted to grant special order status to the controversial bill was one of the chief opponents of Georgia's harbor deepening, Sen. Larry Grooms, R-37th District.
But Grooms said an opinion from an attorney for a separate panel on which he serves, the S. C. Savannah River Maritime Commission, assured him the legislation would not affect legal challenges to the harbor deepening. The commission is also fighting Georgia's deepening project.
"Based on that, I was satisfied and moved forward," said Grooms on Friday.
"Other folks involved said it's a possibility that the (commission's) attorney erred, and so there is an attempt to have an amendment attached to the bill just to make certain that it in no way would affect the lawsuit," he added.
Grooms said the proposal could be changed get rid of its retroactive impact, which would protect the groups' legal standing against the harbor deepening.
The corps' April 16 motion to dismiss, filed federal district court, specifically cited the possibility that state legislators will pass H. 4654 into law.
"Review at this time is also inappropriate because the nature of the permit requirement that may apply at the time the discharges will be made is also uncertain," argues the corps in its motion to dismiss last month.
So, argued corps, "It would simply be speculative for the court to try to determine today what the South Carolina permit requirements will be a year from now."
The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Savannah Riverkeeper, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, and the S.C. Wildlife Federation, is arguing that the corps failed to obtain a necessary pollution control permit in the course of its plans to deepen the Savannah River and harbor.
As for the corps' reliance on the bill as grounds for seeking a dismissal, Grooms called it "a huge stretch."
"Of 2,000-3,000 bills introduced, you might have 100 or so become law," added the lawmaker.
"Just because someone thinks something doesn't mean it's so. It's certainly not a law until it passes."
In a letter to Grooms dated May 1, Chris DeScherer, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the General Assembly should not "gut the citizen suit provision of the Pollution Control Act."
DeScherer called the group's lawsuit filed under the act "an essential backstop for protecting South Carolina's interests in the Lower Savannah River," given that the corps has said it could move forward with the project without obtaining a water quality certification from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
On Friday the Coastal Conversation League also stressed its objections to the changes proposed under H. 4654. and said its effects would reach beyond Georgia's harbor deepening.
"Passage of this bill would remove what may be the only means that South Carolina has of reviewing and permitting the environmental impacts of this destructive project," said Moore of the Charleston-based league.
"The conservation community is strongly opposed to this bill in its current form because it strips the ability of property owners to protect their rights and removes existing protections for public health, not just on the Savannah River, but all over South Carolina."
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