CHARLESTON — Attorneys meeting behind closed doors are trying to settle a federal lawsuit challenging the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel.
Former South Carolina U.S. Rep. John Spratt is overseeing two days of court-ordered mediation of the case scheduled for Thursday and Friday.
The Georgia ports want the channel deepened to handle the larger container ships that will be calling when the Panama Canal expansion is open to shipping traffic in 2015. The project would deepen the river and harbor entrance channel from its current 42 feet to 47 feet.
But environmental groups in both states have sued, saying the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs a South Carolina pollution permit for the project because the dredging will remove toxic cadmium and deposit it on the South Carolina shore.
In an earlier order, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel asked all the parties in the federal suit “to participate fully and in good faith in court-ordered mediation.”
He also noted that an earlier S.C. Supreme Court ruling that no state water quality certification has been granted for deepening the channel may raise difficult legal issues.
The state Supreme Court last month invalidated a federal clean water certification that had been issued by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. The court ruled the state’s Savannah River Maritime Commission, not DHEC, had authority over river activities.
When the environmental groups sued over the state pollution permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Georgia ports argued that no permit was needed because the water quality certification had already been issued. But under the Supreme Court ruling, that argument is now moot.
However, the corps has told Congress it now wants an exemption from the requirement that the state certify the project.
The corps has sent letters to Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boehner and eight other Washington lawmakers saying the project should be allowed to bypass environmental review by South Carolina.
Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant Army secretary for civil works, said in the letters to 10 House and Senate leaders the project qualifies for such an exemption because Congress conditionally authorized the project in 1999.
She said the exemption is needed “in order to prevent inappropriate delays to this project due to pending litigation.”
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