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The Associated Press December 2, 2010, 2:40PM ET

Business, political leaders back Savannah dredging

With federal deficits running high, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and business leaders ramped up pressure on the federal government Thursday to dredge the Port of Savannah so it can accommodate the larger ships expected to pass through the Panama Canal.

State officials want to deepen the second-largest port on the East Coast by six feet, giving it a 48-foot depth, around the time the Panama Canal finishes its own expansion project. If Georgia's biggest port cannot accommodate the larger ships moving through the canal, regional leaders fear they will sail elsewhere.

The project makes for unusual alliances. Local Republican lawmakers have promised to oppose earmarks -- but not for the port. Reed, a Democrat, is seeking White House support for a project nearly 250 miles from his city because he credits it with supporting 300,000 jobs across the state.

"We do not have a bigger opportunity than the opportunity, in my mind, that is around the deepening of this port, which is why I've placed all partisanship aside," Reed said. "This is about what Georgia will be in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years."

Home Depot CEO Frank Blake said his home improvement company moves about a quarter of its shipping through ports in Savannah and Brunswick. Bigger ships moving through the Panama Canal can carry more cargo at a lower cost. But he noted that many freighters must now wait until high tide to transit Savannah's shallow port.

"When the Panama Canal expands and you have larger ships, you make a bad situation just dramatically worse," Blake said. "And I'd say just neither we as a company nor the region can afford having those ships pass us by and go somewhere else."

Opposition to the dredging project has been focused on environmental concerns. Conservationists have said the project would transform freshwater wetlands into saltwater, in essence destroying habitat for several endangered or threatened species including bald eagles, wood storks, manatees and shortnose sturgeon.

However, the project took a step forward last month when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a draft saying that acquiring wetlands and taking other protective steps could offset the environmental damage caused by dredging.

Port officials started studying whether to dredge the port in 1996. The ultimate decision on whether to allow dredging is not expected until late next year.

Now Reed and other leaders are lobbying hard for federal funding needed for the $625 million project. Sen. Saxby Chambliss recently said he supported a Republican-led ban on earmarks, but he reserved the right to request money for dredging.

Atlanta-based AJC International uses the Port of Savannah to ship five million to seven million pounds of dark chicken meat weekly to 49 countries, including Russia, China, and nations in the Middle East and the Caribbean, said Eric Joiner, the firm's vice chairman.

Joiner said he worries that asking for federal funding could be difficult after a recession that prompted lawmakers to promise spending cuts. He participated in the panel talk to convince regional leaders that the port is critical infrastructure, not frivolous spending.

"There's not a lot of money to go around," Joiner said. "And everybody's got worthy projects, so everyone's out there wanting the money. And I'm concerned that people will think, `Well, is this an earmark?'"

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