Savannah dredging decision should be based on facts

  • Wednesday, January 25, 2012

By now most people are aware of the Department of Health and Environmental Control's (DHEC) disastrous and ill-informed decision to grant Georgia a permit that effectively allows them to dredge the Savannah River. From both an evironmental and economic perspective this decision was wrong.
However, on the Georgia side of the river media reports reduce South Carolina reaction to political theater or emotional hyperactivity. The natural reaction is to say, "Who cares what they report?" But it is important because from a national perspective, the decision makers who read these articles will surmise that Georgia and South Carolina are simply engaging in a case of "he said, she said," and it will minimize our argument over which port is best positioned to serve the needs of business and industy.
For 13 years, The Savannah Morning News has asserted that the Port of Savannah needs a dredging project. Yet they fail to mention that this project, which originated in 1998, exceeds original cost estimates by 350 percent and won't work as planned. The fact is that this ill-conceived project never met 1998 objectives, much less 2012 objectives and will cost approximately $650 million. In stark contrast, the Charleston harbor deepening has far less environmental impact and will cost taxpayers $300 million.
The most glaring ineptitude is that the first 11 years of the process, at a cost of $36 million, was spent studying a channel to nowhere, literally. The channel extension the GPA applied for in 1998 stopped well before it got to where the ocean was as deep as the channel, meaning ships couldn't have gotten to it. Somehow this fact was blamed on South Carolina.
As reported in the Savannah Morning News in Nov. 2009, the "harbor deepening that's been more than 10 years in the making" was rendered inadequate by a South Carolina study referring to a $23 nautical chart, and that simple finding "will extend the dredging farther than the Corps' original estimate." Georgia's fix for the channel-to-nowhere conundrum was to reduce the depth of the entrance channel by a debilitating three feet, and to nearly double the length of the channel extension to reach deeper ocean water.
In most cities, the press might look into such a debacle. But $36 million and 11 years of multi-agency study down the drain apparently isn't newsworthy in Savannah. Instead, the News referred to the South Carolinians as "crackpots."For additional evidence of misinformation and partial reporting consider the stated objectives of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project:
Allow larger ships to use the port.
Reduce congestion.
Improve port efficiencies.
The new channel would be five percent narrower than the channel they have now. The driving force behind ships getting bigger is the expansion of the locks in the Panama Canal, which will handle ships that are 55 percent wider by 2014. These two facts simply do not work. In fact, most second graders can figure out that narrowing a channel by five percent is not the way to handle 55 percent wider ships.
Here's what the Army Corps' $36 million study revealed about the project's congestion and efficiency:
In the ocean entrance channel, "pilots should exercise extreme caution if attempting to move at speeds as high as 10 knots." In a properly designed entrance channel, 20 knots is common. An Army Corps' graph predicts waves and weather off Savannah are only calm enough 122 days a year for even partially loaded ships to avoid bumping along the bottom, now that three feet of depth has been shaved off the design of the entrance channel.
"The channel was not designed for full two-way traffic for the design ship at all times,"and that "design ship" is 20 feet narrower than the new Panama Canal will handle. (In fact, this same "design ship" was used to study harbor deepening in Miami and concluded that a 50 foot channel was required to accommodate it.)
The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project was an unworkable channel-to-nowhere for the first 11 years of its gestation. In its current design, it will restrict even partially loaded ships to excessively slow speeds and one-way traffic, and it will require many of them to wait for high tide, causing significant delays.
It's past time for Georgia to stop asking taxpayers to dig the wrong channel too far up a narrow river to the wrong terminal; for the Army Corps (that is based in Georgia) to keep approving it; and for the Georgia media to report only half of the debate.
Instead, for financial and environmental reasons we should maximize the intrinsic advantages of the Charleston port's deepening project; while working jointly with Georgia to build an efficient terminal in Jasper County. That solution would be best for our respective states, the taxpayer and our country's economic future.
(Rep. Jim Merrill serves in the South Carolina House of Representatives and Billy Swails is the mayor of the Town of Mount Pleasant.)

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