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Savannah port plans now shallower, costlier
Corps study recommends deepening river
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Government and business leaders are applauding an Army Corps of Engineers study released Wednesday that recommends the deepening of the Port of Savannah.

Plans to deepen the busy river channel that ships navigate to reach the Port of Savannah both shrunk and expanded Wednesday as Georgia’s port chiefs agreed to give up 1 foot of water depth and a federal agency’s final study on the project added about $50 million in costs to taxpayers.

Those were the major changes in the Corps’ final version of its massive study on the economic and environmental impacts of deepening 38 miles of the Savannah River between the port and the Atlantic Ocean.

The deepening is expected to allow a larger class of ship to import and export goods from the port and create an economic impact throughout the region.

State Sen. Butch Miller, who has backed the deepening, said he was pleased with the news.

“It will be good for Georgia; it will be good for the Southeast, and it will be particularly good for Hall County,” he said.

Hall County businesses import $69.7 million and export $33.2 million in products that include auto parts, furniture, poultry, tractors and miscellaneous plastic and metal items.

The Georgia Mountains Region, a 13-county area in Northeast Georgia, imports an estimated $115.9 million worth of goods through the ports of Savannah and Brunswick and exports another $71.5 million.

But as Tim Evans, vice president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, pointed out the expansion goes beyond Hall County and Georgia.

Savannah has the nation’s fourth-busiest container port.

“This is a project of national infrastructure importance,” Evans said.

Georgia officials didn’t get everything they wanted, however.

Previously the Georgia Ports Authority had sought to dredge the river channel by 6 feet to a depth of 48 feet at low tide, at an estimated cost of more than $600 million. But port officials yielded to the federal agency’s findings that it would be better to dredge only 5 feet to a low-tide depth of 47 feet. The new cost estimate: $652 million, with most of the extra money going to offset environmental damage.

“You take what you can get and work for what you want,” said Miller on the shallower depth.

The big question was how much Georgia port officials had given up by agreeing to the shallower depth. Despite the volume of goods going in and out of port, Savannah has the shallowest waterway of any major U.S. port.

State officials have long argued they need deeper water to stay competitive as cargo ships grow larger.

Savannah and other East Coast ports are racing to deepen their harbors in anticipation of accommodating more supersize cargo ships after the Panama Canal completes a major expansion in 2014. The upgraded canal will handle ships needing 50 feet of depth.

Georgia Ports Authority director Curtis Foltz dismissed any notion that Savannah might lose business to port competitors such as neighboring Charleston, S.C., that are seeking to deepen their harbors to 50 feet. Foltz said he believes, even after the canal is expanded, most ships calling on the East Coast won’t need more than 46 feet of water. And Savannah would have more than 50 feet of depth at high tide.

“We’ve been the shallowest port in the South for a decade, but we’ve been the fastest growing,” said Foltz, who insisted the port’s customers “know how to work around it.”

Before the Army Corps can start digging, the harbor expansion needs approval from four federal agencies — the Army, the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.

As expected, the agency concluded the deepening project makes economic sense despite the high cost of repairing environmental damage. The final analyses predicted $174 million in annual savings by allowing larger ships with heavier cargo loads to use Savannah’s port, therefore improving efficiency.

Gov. Nathan Deal has made deepening the Savannah harbor an economic priority and Georgia port officials are pushing to finish the work before the end of 2016. State taxpayers would foot 30 percent of the cost, with the federal government paying for the rest.

The Corps’ report says more than $292 million of the project’s cost will go to measures to offset environmental damage. They include building a large bypass allowing endangered shortnosed sturgeons to swim around a dam in the Savannah River near Augusta to reach areas where they’re expected to reproduce in greater numbers, as well as building a 38-acre retention pool at Savannah’s water treatment plant on the river that it can use as a backup source of water when pipe-corroding chlorides get too high during drought periods.

Chris DeScherer, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he couldn’t immediately tell how far the Corps’ final report would go in addressing concerns the group raised when a draft was issued in November 2010.

Neighboring South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River with Georgia, has emerged as a major opponent of deepening the river. South Carolina lawmakers this year blocked the state’s environmental agency from issuing a permit for the Savannah project, saying it will cause irreparable damage to freshwater marshes and endangered fish and require oxygen to be pumped artificially to the river bottom.

South Carolina also has an economic incentive for throwing up roadblocks: It operates one of Savannah’s fiercest port competitors in Charleston, barely 100 miles away. The Charleston port is also seeking funding and permits to deepen its harbor, but the required studies have just begun.

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