News | July 2, 2015

As global shipping grows, SELC keeps an eye on health of Southeastern ports

Listen to the latest Power of the Law Update, where SELC attorneys discuss the issues driving our work. Here, Chris DeScherer, Managing Attorney in our Charleston office, explains the effects of deepening ports to accomodate larger cargo ships and describes how SELC worked with the Ports of Charleston and Savannah to ensure responsible deepening.

A written version of the story appears below.

All around the world cargo container ships are getting bigger, much bigger.

SELC Senior Attorney Chris DeScherer says that the trend has ramifications for the port cities of the Southeast: “Ports along the east coast, and frankly everywhere, are competing to attract those larger ships. All these ports are trying to deepen their harbors to allow these larger container ships to make it to the various ports.”

The result of all that competition: proposals to deepen harbors and the rivers leading to them. Combining years of experience with legal and environmental expertise, SELC is well positioned to evaluate these proposals and their impacts on the rivers, marshes, and wetlands so vital to coastal communities.

“Every time a port deepens, or a river, or a harbor” says DeScherer, “they allow a deeper slug of salt water to move further upstream and that has cascading repercussions for wetlands, for fish, for water supplies. For years we were involved in litigation challenging the deepening of the Savannah harbor in Georgia. It was a very damaging proposal in our view. We wound up settling that case after years of litigation.”

That settlement came two years ago. And when the port of Charleston recently proposed its own deepening plan, SELC became involved again.

“We represented the Coastal Conservation League here in town,” remembers DeScherer, “We started negotiating and talking with the Port Authority and some of our partner groups and, basically, after a lot of discussion and negotiation we wound up with a settlement before we even went to court. The port will contribute an additional $5 million toward mitigation to purchase key conservation tracts and wetlands in the Cooper River corridor. It’s a great win-win for everyone involved. The port gets to deepen. We get additional mitigation to offset some of the harms of deepening.”

So why did the settlement in Savannah take longer and require litigation, when the Charleston deal did not? In part, says DeScherer, it’s because the Port of Savannah is 16 miles up river, making everything more challenging.

“There’s more dredging, you’re going farther upstream, the port is not in a true harbor, like it is here in Charleston, so we felt like it was a more damaging proposal in Savannah, so it’s harder to find common ground. For example, in Savannah the port would be impacting levels of oxygen in the water and exacerbating a problem that already exists. There are a number of factors that make Savannah a much trickier place to do this. So it took litigation to create the conditions upon which agreement could be reached. And we’re happy with agreement in Savannah.

In Charleston it’s more of a true harbor. It’s not, we don’t think, as damaging a proposal, but still a major proposal. I think each of the parties had a real interest in trying to work together to find a result that made sense, and we think this did.”

In the year 2016, a long-anticipated expansion of the Panama Canal is set to become reality, bringing even more large ships to the eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, thanks to SELC’s intervention, both Charleston and Savannah are better prepared to protect the very natural resources that make those areas so vital in the first place.

For background on the anticipated changes in the international shipping industry once the expanded Panama Canal opens next year, read this story from the Charleston Post & Courier.