BRADENTON, Fla. — A federal judge in South Carolina this week ruled that the Georgia Ports Authority and the Savannah River Maritime Commission can intervene in a lawsuit filed by environmentalists against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The complaint centers on whether the Corps, in its review process for Georgia’s long-planned $650 million harbor dredging project at the Port of Savannah, failed to get a pollution permit from neighboring South Carolina.
Savannah is preparing for larger vessels following the 2014 enlargement of the Panama Canal. So is South Carolina’s Port of Charleston, about 100 miles north of Savannah.
Georgia has sold $110.3 million of general obligation bonds for the port since 1999 to provide funding for various projects, including an initial feasibility study for the 36-mile deepening of Savannah Harbor to 47 feet from 42 feet.
Another $90 million of bonds have been authorized, but not yet issued, for the port, according to state finance officials.
With the Corps embarking on final approval of Savannah’s project, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit earlier this year on behalf of several environmentalist groups.
The suit alleges that the harbor deepening would degrade water quality, destroy marshlands, endanger a national wildlife refuge, threaten endangered species and other wildlife, and alter aquatic resources in Georgia as well as South Carolina.
The suit also said that the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project would involve a number of polluting actions, such as placing cadmium-laden dredging material on land.
The Corps should be required to obtain a pollution permit from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The Georgia Ports Authority, in a motion seeking to intervene in the federal case, said it has a “strong economic interest” in the harbor expansion project and that it has “invested significantly in the [Savannah Harbor Expansion Project] and must continue to do so, which will result in economic gain for … the region.”
On Tuesday, Judge Richard Gergel ruled that the Ports Authority could intervene in the case as well as the Savannah River Maritime Commission, which oversees dredging activities on the South Carolina portion of the Savannah River.
Gergel also assigned mediators to the case, and set a hearing for Nov. 16.
The lawsuit was filed in state court in February on behalf of the Savannah Riverkeeper, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.
The complaint was later moved to federal court.
The environmental groups also have brought an administrative challenge concerning the harbor project, which is pending.
In mid-July, President Obama announced that five ports would benefit from his “We Can’t Wait” initiative to fast track federal reviews mostly for harbor deepening projects, including those at Savannah and Charleston.
The initiative will expedite the final federal approval for the Port of Savannah, resulting in the issuance of a so-called Record of Decision by November.
That approval will lead to construction of the project, which includes “an extensive mitigation plan … to restore, preserve and adaptively manage the surrounding ecosystem, which includes the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge,” the president said.
It’s not clear if the final federal approval could be delayed by environmental groups’ legal and administrative challenges.