Is the Savannah Port plan a sound investment or wasteful and harmful?

Moderated by Rick Badie

Federal officials recently signed off on a project to deepen the Port of Savannah so that it can accommodate super-sized containers ships. The project remains in muddy waters, though. South Carolina officials, who have threatened lawsuits, dislike the project and think deepening the river to 47 feet will hurt the environment. (They prefer 45 feet.) Today, we present two views on the issue.

Savannah Port plan is sound investment

By Curtis Foltz

The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) is a critical investment in our national infrastructure. It helps to ensure economic competitiveness while protecting natural resources. The project was authorized by Congress, informed by more than a decade of exhaustive study and extensive public input, developed by a collaboration of state and federal agencies, recently accelerated by the president, and now approved by the federal government. It is ready for federal funding and construction.

America’s ports support job creation, economic growth and opportunity. They sustain more than 13 million jobs, $3.15 trillion of business activity, and more than $200 billion in federal, state and local revenue for public services. More than 10 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product derives from international trade moving through ports. Of that, almost one in eight containerized tons exported from America moves through the Savannah port.

Savannah, the fastest-growing port in the country over the last decade, is the largest gateway to U.S. trade in the Southeast. It handles twice the cargo volume of the second-busiest port and has existing infrastructure capacity to double current container volumes. The federal government recently issued its Record of Decision authorizing the deepening of the harbor channel to 47 feet.

Deepening the port of Savannah is a sound investment. The benefit-to-cost ratio of the project is $5.50 for every dollar spent on the deepening. The project will provide annual benefits of $213 million to the nation, a value that will exceed $10 billion over the life of the project. In Georgia, 352,000 jobs are tied to the port, and $18.5 billion of income for Georgians is generated through port-related business every year.

Under the leadership of Gov. Nathan Deal and the General Assembly, the state has already approved $181 million toward project construction. The president has included the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project as one of the seven port projects in his We Can’t Wait Initiative, which focuses on expediting projects to help drive job growth and strengthen the economy. We hope and expect the fiscal 2014 federal budget will include significant funding for this project.

As part of this project, $311 million will be spent on environmental mitigation, a recommendation that resulted from 16 years of study, including collaboration between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Georgia Ports Authority, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal and state agencies. The project plan will restore, preserve and adaptively manage the ecosystem.

America is at a critical juncture on the global stage. Georgia can play an important role in our direction forward. The state has stepped up. We look forward to the matching federal support. The result for Georgia will be economic growth in balance with our environmental resources.

Curtis Foltz is executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.

Dredging could be wasteful, harmful

By Chris DeScherer

Dredging the Lower Savannah River — at a cost of more than $650 million — is a bad deal for taxpayers and the Savannah River.

An important economic question for this project is whether the deepening will actually result in meaningful economic benefits for Georgia and the region. Recently, the CEO of the Georgia Ports Authority told the Savannah Morning News that “[t]he ships and jobs will only come to Savannah if the harbor is deepened.” The Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for evaluating the dredging project, reached the opposite conclusion.

The corps concluded in its final study that “cargo growth through the harbor would not be affected by the proposed harbor deepening.” Further, its “analysis did not reveal that additional permanent jobs would be created as a result of the harbor deepening.”

Zero jobs for $650 million.

The corps predicts that because the same amount of cargo will come in on fewer, larger ships, there will be millions in transportation cost savings. Cost savings for whom? Foreign-owned shipping lines? Foreign manufacturers? Those who operate the Panama Canal? The corps won’t say. It just assumes that all the benefits go to you and me.

In fact, because the value of manufactured goods imported through Savannah is greater than the lower-value goods exported through the port, the corps’ own numbers indicate the majority of economic benefits of deepening would go to foreign interests.

The corps proposes to push the Savannah River, already impaired by severe and unnaturally low levels of oxygen needed for fish to breathe, so far over the edge that it proposes to plug the river into a host of mechanical respirators that would suck water out of the river, re-aerate it, and then inject super-oxygenated water back into the river.

The corps plans to use these respirators as life support in perpetuity from the day the river is dredged, yet the manufacturer has stated the technology has never before been used on such a grand scale.

The environmental problems don’t end there. More salt water will flow farther upstream. Rare wetlands will be lost. Savannah’s drinking water will be jeopardized. Federally endangered species, like right whales, and important recreational species, such as striped bass, will be harmed. Millions of cubic yards of cadmium-laden sediments will be dumped on the banks.

Approximately 10 East and Gulf Coast ports plan to spend about $15 billion over the next decade to deepen and upgrade. Yet the corps avoids two important questions: Should we deepen only what we need? Which port in the Southeast could be deepened for the least money and with the fewest environmental impacts? Experts believe the anticipated traffic is not sufficient to justify plowing billions of public dollars into ports everywhere.

This is not the time to spend $650 million on spin. We need an assessment of the region’s shipping needs so our money, and our resources, can be used with common sense.

Chris DeScherer is managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

7 comments Add your comment


November 15th, 2012
8:25 am

The EPA is one of the agencies that needs to be disbanded and started over. What started out as a credible agency has no gotten so “tooky” (if I may) that nothing can happen anywhere…..a minnow or sparrow POSSIBLY might not make it. Poke at me if you want, but ths agency is dreadfully close to approaching that. That being said, if THEY signed off on it, then absolutely no impact of any kind on the environment will happen with the dredging.


November 15th, 2012
6:49 am

I don’t believe men can replicate a natural situation to keep marine life in abundance. What happens when men and machinery fail? Then we fail lives all over the world by changing our ecosystem to suit our wants and not our needs.


November 14th, 2012
5:08 pm

Is Hartsfield the busiest airport in the world because it expanded when it was exceeding capacity, or because the airlines that use it expanded with it?
Did the perimeter area and the northern suburbs of Atlanta grow because people and companies moved there and then a highway was built, or did they follow the infrastructure?
The truth is you won’t know the potential for an infrastructure project until you do it. They (projects and industry) tend to feed off of each other and grow.
Do I feel bad about wetland loss? Yes. But there is mitigation involved in the project. And if 16 years of studies isn’t going to convince you, nothing will.

ATL Born and Raised

November 14th, 2012
2:15 pm

@blue dog I think after Katrina drowned the city of New Orleans because of its inadequate levees the Corps no longer has credibility.


November 14th, 2012
1:24 pm

I must admit even with the economic benefits from this project the potential negative environmental impacts do concern me. However, if the EPA and other agencies have signed off on the project as the article suggests I’m not sure why we would not proceed. I also am concerned that some of the environmental opposition is being stirred up by groups that would prefer to see future expansion occur in other states for their own benefit.


November 14th, 2012
12:16 pm

The issue that is being overlooked is the fact that some deep water ships can transit the Savannah River. There is the short snouted sturgeon that would be come extinct with the deepening of the harbor. Also, the acquifer providing drinking water for 1,000,000 people could become contaminated. Also, the corp of engineers which depend on earmarks to fund their projects, the republicans have vowed to veto any projects depending on earmarks. Savannah has a historical history, it was Shermans headquarters after the civil war, and a lot of other stuff like the home of the Girl Scouts.
What is needed is a intercontinental air port right in Savannah, that would send tourism through the stratosphere.

blue dog

November 14th, 2012
11:11 am

The Corp signed off on the previous deepening only to learn that their “Tidal Gate” used to “flush” the channel ended up completely destroying the native Striped Bass population.
After decades of “study”, they removed the Gate.
Now, they say it’s okay to go even deeper with all these elaborate mechanical Respirators.
That is just not going to work.
The Corp has a lengthy history of screw ups all over the country which we had to pay to undo, therefore, they have lost their credibility.
There will be plenty of non “Mega Ships” that will continue to come to Savannah according to the firm hired by the Corp to do this study. They stated that the port would ” continue to grow, just not at quite the increased pace.