House vote would stop dredging suit

March 23, 2012

Boosters of deepening Savannah’s harbor got support from an unusual source Thursday: South Carolina legislators.

The state House of Representatives voted 85-22 for a bill that’s expected to stop a lawsuit challenging the Georgia dredging, despite the project’s potential environmental impacts on South Carolina.

While many South Carolina legislators oppose the Georgia project, big business interests are trying to prevent what they say could be a flurry of lawsuits in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling last summer. That ruling bolstered the public’s right to sue for enforcement of the state’s pollution control act, while also increasing protections for many wetlands in South Carolina.

Three environmental groups have since used the Supreme Court ruling to challenge the Savannah harbor project in court. At least three other so-called “citizen suits” – in Richland, Charleston and Horry counties – also have been filed since the high court’s July decision.

Reps. Paul Agnew, D-Abbeville, James Smith, D-Richland, Walton McLeod, D-Newberry, were among a handful of legislators arguing against the bill that eventually passed Thursday.

“Let’s look out for our own best interests first,” McLeod said. “If we pass this legislation, the Savannah River lawsuit is going to collapse immediately.”

The House is expected to give the bill a final, routine approval Tuesday, then send it to the Senate, where it faces more scrutiny. A similar bill is also working its way through the Senate.

South Carolina has been in an uproar since the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control changed its mind and approved key permits last November for the more than $600 million Savannah port project. Boosters in Georgia say the project will prepare the port there for larger ships.

But many S.C. legislators are upset with DHEC because the project is competing with Charleston’s plans to expand for larger ships. Environmentalists say the dredging will have devastating impacts on the Savannah River, which already is stressed by industrial discharges.

The bill’s chief proponent, Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Horry, said the state has plenty of other legal avenues to challenge the Savannah dredging. The suit is not the only legal challenge that has been filed, he said. Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, said he voted for the bill because of its potential to more intensely regulate wetlands.

“There are adequate protections in place now; I don’t think we need to add more,” Hiott said.

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