The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Tuesday that the environmental costs of dredging the Port of Savannah to accommodate larger ships can be offset, a long-awaited finding that advances a plan to expand the country's fourth-largest container port.
Port officials want to dredge the Savannah River by six feet, giving it a 48-foot depth, so the port can accommodate the larger cargo freighters expected to pass through the Panama Canals once it's deepened in 2014. Unless Savannah's port can accommodate those ships, authorities fear they will dock elsewhere.
Ships carrying petroleum, wood, cement, gypsum and textiles moving through Savannah's port must now wait until high tide to transit the port, said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. He said the shipping industry is moving toward larger ships that can transport more cargo more efficiently.
"It's definitely a step in the right direction," Foltz said. "We've got to be able to accommodate these larger ships, and the depth is absolutely necessary to making that happen."
Plans to dredge the harbor have been in the works since 1996. Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue credits the port with creating jobs and calls dredging the 36-mile channel the most important infrastructure project in Georgia.
"The harbor deepening is going to allow us to keep the strategic advantage that we've gained through the effective and efficient operation of the ports down here," Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said.
The public will get a chance to formally comment on the report before it's finalized. The ultimate decision on whether to allow dredging is not expected until late next year.
Georgia authorities consider the Port of Savannah's future tied to the Panama Canal, which will be deepened to 50 feet by the end of 2014. They have said that the Port of Savannah must also be deepened to accommodate the heavier ships that will transit the canal headed for the East Coast.
In the review, the Army Corps of Engineers said the project would destroy wetlands, but it has proposed adding land to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge to compensate. Scientists proposed injecting oxygen into the river during dredging to make sure that levels do not drop too low for river life.
Environmental groups that monitor the river, which forms the eastern border between Georgia and South Carolina, were considering appeals. Nancy Vinson, director of air, water and public health programs for the Charleston-based South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, said her group is worried that dredging may send salt water into 330 acres of freshwater wetlands contained in the larger Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, destroying that habitat.
The refuge is home to several endangered or threatened species including bald eagles, wood storks, manatees and shortnose sturgeon.
Vinson said the league is also concerned that dredging could affect the upper Florida aquifer, the source of drinking water in the Savannah area and communities on the South Carolina side of the river. The aquifer has already been affected by saltwater intrusion as it lowers because of heavy use.
"We are going to hire experts to look at it carefully and see if we will appeal," Vinson said.
Associated Press writer Bruce Smith contributed to this report from Charleston, S.C.