The Savannah Harbor Deepening Process Continues

By Andrew H. Ernst, published on September 21, 2011, in Business in Savannah.

The deepening of the Savannah Harbor, now estimated to cost $588 million, was conditionally approved in part when Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of 1999 (WRDA99). Those conditions included finalizing an environmental impact statement for the project as well as other supporting studies and completion of the permitting process.

The act also required the selected plan for this project, which is known as the Savannah Harbor Expansion project, or SHEP, to be jointly approved by the Secretary of Interior, the Secretary of Commerce, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Secretary of the Army.

In November 2010, a Draft Tier II EIS and Draft General Re-Evaluation Report for SHEP were released. The public comment period closed in January of 2011 and the Corps of Engineers has been analyzing comments and undertaking additional studies since that time.

Because of the unique language in WRDA99, EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and NOAA have great input, if not decision making authority, on key issues regarding SHEP. Fish and Wildlife officials are concerned that the proposed five years of post-construction monitoring is not adequate, and that 10 years of monitoring should be required to ensure that proposed mitigation procedures are working.

SHEP incorporates an Adaptive Management Plan (AMP) which in itself is somewhat unique. The AMP, one of the first ever implemented for a harbor project, is designed to evaluate whether the measures undertaken to mitigate adverse impacts are performing as predicted and provide for changes to those mitigation measures if needed. It’s worth noting that those mitigation measures represent a substantial share of the total project costs – approximately 41 percent according to a March 2011 update from the Corps.

Of great concern to Fish and Wildlife is preservation of areas of tidal freshwater marsh found in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to the Savannah Harbor. Fish and Wildlife also wants a guaranty that the money will be readily available to implement the AMP if mitigation measures need to be modified during post-construction monitoring. Mitigation efforts will include acquisition of freshwater wetlands across from and upriver of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (approximately 2,680 acres of wetland preservation) to replace freshwater acres which will be lost in part to increased salinity as a result of future rising tides, whether or not SHEP is implemented.

NOAA also remains concerned about SHEP’s impact, particularly on the endangered shortnose sturgeon. Many of NOAA’s concerns could be alleviated if the out of service New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam located upriver in Augusta, Georgia, were removed. However, such action would not be popular with residents in and about Augusta who use the impoundment for recreational purposes. EPA, in turn, has requested a better explanation from the Corps regarding the impact of harbor deepening on future harbor growth and increases in air pollution and other collateral impacts.

Watching every move the agencies make are the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), The Center for Sustainable Coast and the Coastal Conservation League. All have threatened to sue if their environmental concerns are not resolved. SELC advocates a systematic review by the Corps that would include consideration of all ports located on the Eastern Seaboard as “alternative sites” in order to determine which port best warrants deepening after considering environmental impacts and construction costs at each location.

Another player to watch is South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River as a common boundary with Georgia. South Carolina appears to be doing everything it can to stop or slow down SHEP in an effort to protect the competitiveness of the Port of Charleston.

Given the size of the Savannah Harbor Expansion and its potential impact, we can expect that other parties may join the action and, in turn, report again on SHEP as the project progresses farther into its second decade.

Drew Ernst is a partner at HunterMaclean who specializes in environmental law, real estate and economic development. He can be reached at dernst@huntermaclean.com or 912-236-0261.