Groups Reach Settlement on Savannah Harbor Expansion Project

Conservation groups today announced a settlement reached in the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project litigation that establishes significant new conservation efforts to help the Savannah River withstand the harm from further deepening, and requires proof that a proposed oxygen injection system actually works before any river dredging can begin. Previously, conservation groups challenged the project in multiple state and federal courts to ensure compliance with laws that would reduce harm to the Savannah River from the proposed deepening to accommodate larger ships.

“Although we remain concerned about the long-term impacts of deepening the Savannah River, today’s agreement is a substantial improvement over what had been proposed, and helps offset the harms of deepening,” said Chris DeScherer, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents the conservation groups in court proceedings.

The Southern Environmental Law Center represented the Savannah Riverkeeper, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation in today’s settlement agreement with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, the Georgia Ports Authority, and the Savannah River Maritime Commission.

“The health of the Savannah River is the focus of this agreement, as it strengthens the river’s ability to withstand harm from deepening if the project moves forward,” said Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper.

Today’s agreement makes possible new wetlands mitigation, land preservation, and other measures, funded by $33.5 million from the Georgia Ports Authority. These measures will help to address the harms caused by the deepening and increase the resilience of the Lower Savannah River ecosystem.

 The agreement directs $15 million of these funds towards wetlands protection and restoration efforts that benefit the Savannah River. Wetlands improve water quality by filtering pollutants, provide critical nursery habitat for fish and shellfish, and buffer the river from development while at the same time buffering nearby homes and communities from flooding and storms. 

Three million dollars will support monitoring of the Savannah River’s water quality, and another $3 million will support monitoring of federally-endangered fish species and their estuary habitats, which are both indicative of the river system’s health.

The agreement also creates a Savannah River Restoration Board to start a new $12.5 million initiative to restore river bend “oxbows” cut off from the river by earlier Corps navigation projects between Augusta and the Houlihan Bridge above Savannah.  Subsequent Corps studies showed that restoring natural oxbows would improve water quality, boost fishing and recreation opportunities, and help to restore the river’s natural ecosystem. As part of this agreement, the parties will work in good faith to remove existing barriers to this restoration. 

Under today’s agreement, the Corps must test and prove that the proposed oxygen injection system—or Speece Cones—works before it can deepen the inner harbor. If the demonstration of the oxygen injection system fails, challenges to the project can be reinstituted. If the demonstration works, the agreement includes an enforceable provision for a $2 million annual fund from GPA for operation and maintenance of the system.

Although the agreement is designed to lessen the long-term harmful effects of this project, it does not address broader issues regarding how the federal government determines which ports to deepen. “The current approach to harbor deepening in Washington is fatally flawed,” said Dana Beach, the executive director of the Coastal Conservation League. “Spending public funds on deepening projects without a regional assessment of need is irresponsible to taxpayers and the environment. Given that, we believe this settlement makes the best of a very harmful deepening and is a vast improvement over the earlier proposals. We intend to follow the project closely to ensure that that the river is not further compromised by technology that has never been tested in this type of environment, and the settlement provides the mechanism to do that.”

The agreement resolves all claims filed, pending the continued good faith of the parties in executing its terms, and the results of the proposed oxygen injection system tests.

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The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of almost 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.
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