The Port of Savannah and a green group split over tactics

A $600 million dredging would allow the Port of Savannah to accept larger container ships. AJC file

A $600 million dredging would allow the Port of Savannah to accept larger container ships. AJC file

The Great Recession and its 10 percent-plus-change unemployment rate have put Georgia’s environmentalists at a disadvantage they’ve never experienced before.

One suspects that lawmakers in the state Capitol would hunt down every snail darter on the face of the globe — and fry it up in a pan with fresh garlic, too — if such a dish could create one more paycheck.

Even so, the ranks of conservationists across the state were stunned when Pierre Howard, the former lieutenant governor and current president of Georgia’s oldest statewide environmental group, recently submitted an opinion piece to the Savannah Morning News that included these sentences:

“The Georgia Conservancy’s mission is to promote policies that enable the environment and the people to thrive. For that reason, we do not intend to stand in the way of deepening the Savannah harbor.”

The $600 million dredging of the Port of Savannah has been identified by politicians of all levels — from U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson to Gov. Nathan Deal to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — as the state’s most crucial infrastructure project.

Deepening the 36-mile shipway by six feet or so would permit Savannah to handle a new, larger class of cargo ship expected to begin passing through the Panama Canal from Asia in 2014.

Former lieutenant governor Pierre Howard, president of Georgia Conservancy. AJC file

Former lieutenant governor Pierre Howard, president of Georgia Conservancy. AJC file

Most environmental groups are having none of it. They argue that the economic case for the dredging has yet to be made, and that its effect on the coastline, nearby freshwater marshes and marine life would be profound.

Which made Howard’s op-ed piece all the more startling. “I was astounded,” said Bill Sapp, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Georgia Conservancy is the only environmental group in the state willing to show that sort of support for the project.”

Howard disagrees with that assessment. Possibly, the 68-year-old former lieutenant governor admitted in an interview last week, he might have used more artful phrasing in last month’s article.

The point he was trying for: The case for preservation needs to be made from inside the tent — as well as outside. His intention was to make clear to those putting together the Savannah deal that Georgia Conservancy could be viewed as a good-faith partner when talks about the environmental impact of the dredging begin.

“I don’t feel that there’s any great split on this issue within the environmental community,” Howard said. “There may be some differences of opinion on what the tactics should be. Some organizations, their whole way of going about their work is to file lawsuits.”

Howard says he appreciates the work of such groups. He even writes them checks.

“But that’s just not what our board has authorized,” he said, “and that’s not how we go about our work.”

Howard, a Democrat, served as president of the Senate from 1991 to 1999. His tenure is now viewed by many as a kind of bipartisan Eden. “That’s the approach that I took in politics,” he said. “I tried to work with Republicans and Democrats.”

Howard is attempting the same tactics with Georgia Conservancy, which he has led for two years. In Savannah, he has taken meetings with officials from the state port authority and the Army Corps of Engineers. Other groups haven’t made it through the door.

“We want to make sure we get our arguments before them, and that they will hear our arguments and listen to our arguments,” Howard said.

But there is more to Howard’s message than style and civility. “I’m the only one in the environmental community who has ever represented Savannah. I know most of the leaders down there. I know a lot of people who work on the docks,” Howard said. “I know how important the port is not only to the people in the Savannah area but the whole state and the nation. That has to be part of the thinking,”

“We don’t ignore the economics in deciding what we’ll do about a topic,” he said.

But it is not entirely about jobs. Howard also pointed to a letter that he sent to the Corps of Engineers a few weeks before he wrote the Savannah Morning News piece. Ultimately, the letter said, Georgia Conservancy would support or oppose the dredging based on how the corps intends to blunt the damage done to the environment by the dredging.

That remains the case, Howard said. The former lieutenant governor also said that — when it comes to the statistics about the economic benefits of the dredging — skepticism can be a “healthy practice.”

“Make no mistake about this. If the port is deepened, it’s going to change our coastline in many ways forever,” Howard said. “And it’s going to change the city of Savannah forever. We know this is a big decision, a very important decision. We don’t believe we have all the answers.”

Howard said he intends to meet with representatives of other green groups to explain his alternative approach. “That’s encouraging,” said Sapp, of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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29 comments Add your comment


March 19th, 2011
3:35 pm

As a Federal taxpayer, I don’t see spending $600 million for Savannah when there are many other ports on the East coast. As a Georgia taxpayer, I have yet to see the case made where the benefits most Georgians and is thus worth a state investment, although this may be the case. If I lived in Savannah area, I might be more inclined to support local tax money going to it. My first choice however is to let the capitalist system play out and let the businesses who will benefit pay for it…or not if it is not good investment. Environmental impact is a factor to be considered in all.


March 19th, 2011
5:03 pm

This “part of the thinking” has lead to the unstable and unsustainable economy America is constantly grappling with. Economic ventures (such as the dredging of public waterways to ship more plastic crap from China, and the associated proposal to build another superhighway in Georgia/Interstate 3), that don’t take into account social and ecological consequences only furthers America’s downward spiral. What’s the alternative? An economy based on local production and purchasing will lead to a stable and truly prosperous Georgia.

Last Man Standing

March 19th, 2011
5:26 pm


Good points and a good post.


March 19th, 2011
6:36 pm

I’m disappointed with this article, where are the facts about this proposal and why is this piece all about Pierre Howard? Who’s going to be contracted for this project, how much is going to be gained by the Savannah economy? What are the environmental impacts projected, if there is no research why have the people proposing this not investigated that, shouldn’t that be something to be done before making this proposal? A large portion of the Savannah economy is tourism, people don’t want to visit the Hudson river , and if this project is going to push the Savannah River in that direction maybe it’s not a good means to a better economy, and another idea should be found to increase the local economy? Why is this the only and best way to a better economy? Who are the people proposing this project? Who do they represent and how do they stand to benefit from the project? There’s so little information here, a little more questioning never hurt the news.

tom mitchell

March 19th, 2011
9:30 pm

Sounds like Pierre Howard has abdicated his authority as spokesperson for this conservationist group…There surely are conservationists that oppose his placations…

chuck padden

March 19th, 2011
9:36 pm

Last Man Standing…looks like Pierre Howard has sold out to his political pals…such a shame..he is a fraud….I am very, very disappointed in Pierre Howard…thought he was un-bought…but what the heck do I know…

Last Man Standing

March 19th, 2011
9:44 pm

chuck padden:

Both sides of this have valid points. I just don’t like chameleons. If you take a stand on something, you should stay with it unless you learn that your position is challenged by fact/


March 19th, 2011
10:01 pm

hsgrad: You stated what I was thinking. What would $600 million paid to Americans to help establish AMERICAN businesses to employ AMERICANS do? Yeah, someone will get the $600 million for the dredging and there will be a short term increase in jobs, but the long term benefits will be reaped by the Chinese. once again Americans will be paying to build something that will ensure the Chinese prosper. Thank you Jiminy Carter for allowing the sale of the Panama Canal to the Chinese. You sir are a true patriot………… shame your loyalty isn’t to America…………


March 20th, 2011
1:18 am

The Georgia Conservancy is predictably pro-business and pro-development. It functions mostly as the “environmental issues” branch of the Chamber of Commerce.
The name is a bit deceptive, and would lead a normal person to think that the Georgia Conservancy’s priorities are conservation and protection of the environment. Indeed, it would be easy to confuse it with groups with similar sounding names which actually do work to protect the environment.
However, it seems the Georgia Conservancy exists to advocate the priorities of the folks who run GA–for better or worse for the environment.


March 20th, 2011
7:58 am

Most environmental groups are anti business and don’t care about employment. They are against everything, wishing we would live in pastoral simplicity and abject poverty. Without the real public support to carry the day at the polls, the enviornmentalist strategy is too often just to tie projects up in the courts.
O how I wish for adults in leadership who are willing to make complex decisons and live with the consequences.

steve willis

March 20th, 2011
9:03 am

We environmentalists have only ourselves to blame for perpetuating the myth that the Georgia Conservancy is or ever was a conservation-environmentalist organization. It is and always has been a forum in which industrial heavy-hitters can meet and consider environmental issues and how they can most profitably spin and deal with these issues from their respective corporate point of view. This is a worthwhile thing, and it has resulted in some environmental benefits over the years, but it is absurd to conclude that the Georgia Conservancy is in any way a real or meaningful environmental advocacy group.

By going along with the sham that the Georgia Conservancy is a legitimate environmental organization, actual environmental advocates have given it credibility eagerly seconded by Georgia’s generally right-wing media. This dilutes and often negates the efforts of real environmentalists and environmental organizations.

Jamie MaCay, a founder of the Georgia Conservancy, warned me repeatedly that the greatest
obstacle to legitimate consideration of environmental questions in Georgia was the Georgia Conservancy, which he regretted having helped found. Certainly the voice of industry should and will be heard in Georgia, but to have this voice presented as a voice of environmental integrity under the guise of a faux environmental organization is ludicrous and extremely counterproductive.

I urge all people who have a genuine interest in making the long-term care for a healthy and sustainable environment the top priority both in their personal lives, as well as in public policy, to never fail to clearly distinguish between industrial advocacy and environmental advocacy groups. The failure to do so had seriously undermined the protection of Georgia’s environment in the past, and threatens to lead to even greater harm and misunderstanding in the future.


March 20th, 2011
10:07 am

“The great recession and it’s 10 percent-plus-change unemployment rate have put Georgia environmentalist at a disadvantage they’ve never experienced before.” – Galloway

Georgia “environmentalist” have always had to contend with elected officials (and a populace which supports them)
that don’t have foresight and ability to engage in introspection. The unemployment rate and quality of life within Georgia
will not be improved by the continual usage of current economic models and indicators.


March 20th, 2011
10:51 am

Scratch a green and you can see the october red underneath.


March 20th, 2011
10:55 am

You confirmed my point WarEagle.

Last Man Standing

March 20th, 2011
11:16 am


“You confirmed my point WarEagle.”

I don’t think so. How else could one explain the successful efforts of environmentalists to block drilling for oil in very oil-rich locations? Why would our nation sign on to a multi-national agreement with regard to air pollution while China does not? The environmental effort is much more about weakening the U.S. than it is about the environment as it does redistribute wealth. Yep, the communists didn’t go away; they just found a new vehicle in the environmental movement.


March 20th, 2011
11:57 am

As I was saying….there is a need in Georgia of leadership, and an electorate, with foresight and introspection.

1)There are no “oil rich locations” within the United States. 2)Please research the social, health, ecological, environmental, communist (however you wish to frame it) consequences of China’s unregulated PROSPERITY. 3)Studies have shown that states with stronger environmental policies consistently out-performed the weaker environmental states on all economic measures.

Can anyone offer proof that relaxing environmental standards (or building Interstate-3 and increase shipping capacity at the Savannah port) will produce economic growth?


March 20th, 2011
12:10 pm


1)There are no “oil rich locations” within the United States

Proven oil reserves in the United States are 21 billion barrels. This excludes oil shale reserves. The United States has the largest known deposits of oil shale in the world, according to the Bureau of Land Management and holds an estimated 2.175 trillion barrels of potentially recoverable oil.

3)Studies have shown that states with stronger environmental policies consistently out-performed the weaker environmental states on all economic measures.

california has had the strongest environmental standards for makes a car cost more in california than any other state, and oh yeah..a broke state paying off vendors in IOUs at the end of every fiscal quarter and a $48 billion state budget deficit.

Fish in a barrel.


March 20th, 2011
12:15 pm

If Pierre has any trouble with the sierra club, he can always “hit them with the kenny g”.

Port O'John

March 20th, 2011
12:16 pm

It endlessly amusing to see you “patriots” call anyone who questions projects like new nuke plants and dredging rivers “communists” and accuse them of hating america. You hate regulations and gubmint, but can’t seem to understand that gubmint regulations is what gives us clean water to drink and reduces really nasty stuff in our air, soil and water supply.

Spending taxpayer dollars to dredge the Savannah River will bring a few jobs to Savannah, but its really an attempt to take business away from Brunswick. Charleston and other coastal cities. Sure it will make it cheaper for China to ship their plastic schlock to walmart, but its all about helping bid bidness, not the average Georgian. If you don’t know that “trickle down” economics is really a metaphor for p%*ing on your head, then enjoy the shower.

As for oil, there is plenty of oil in the supply chain and plenty of refinery capacity. Its speculators who trade in oil futures that are driving up the price. Not the lack of oil. An Iranian navy warship went through the Suez canal and the price of oil went up $5 dollars a barrel. That’s just profiteering.

Take a visit to the Savannah River Site sometime and see how the dispose of nuke wastes. The coat in chrome and then titanium, encase it concrete and toss it (along with the waste from coating in chrome and titanium) and toss it into unlined ditches on the site. I don’t want to get all “sciency” on you GOP-Talibnites, but the water table (that’s how far under the soil you have to go to find water) in the Georgia/South Coastal Plain, is only a few feet under the surface soil. Titanium, chrome and concrete only stop the spread of the radioactivity from spreading for a few years. The half-life (that’s how long it take for something to degrade) for radiation is centuries. That means that all the nuke waste we tossed into those ditches is leaking into the water table. Eventually it goes into the river and downstream to Savannah.

I don’t really care because I choose to live upstream of stuff like this, but all you ditto-heads who believe everything Ga Power or big oil tells you, go ahead and enjoy your walmart jobs, goverment subsidized electricity and and keep ranting about how you hate the gubmint. There are a lot of government subsidies we could cut (ethanol, for example) that would actually increase energy supplies, increase competition and reduce the federal budget, but because it might have an environmental benefit, you oppose it.



March 20th, 2011
12:53 pm

From the title, it sounds like something having to do with “Split Green Pea Soup!”


March 20th, 2011
1:19 pm

@port, I am all FOR killing the ethanol subsidy and blended fuel mandate.

Bob Burger

March 20th, 2011
1:29 pm

Disappointed in article’s content as well—no 8X10 glossy-color photographs of the crime scene, as Arlo Guthrie put it in Alice’s Restaurant; no maps or diagrams to show where salt water intrusion will be, or if new freshwater marshes created upstream will mitigate the effects of dredging.


March 20th, 2011
1:44 pm

…and what happens after we deplete these “proven oil reserves”, as calculated by the big gubmint BLM?


March 20th, 2011
2:35 pm

Georgia Conservancy has been “middle of the road” on issues which has allowed it to appear to be an environmentally concerned group and at the same time have close ties….and contributions…from big corporations that benefit from Georgia Conservancy’s middle of the road stance to back their projects. The Georgia Conservancy motto seems to be, “we are for development, jobs, economic growth, etc. as long as it is green, sustainable, etc. Problem is that they seem to be more concerned with using data that supports development rather than the environment. I am canceling my membership with Georgia Conservancy and would urge others to research their positions and consider doing the same.

The Goobernator

March 20th, 2011
3:19 pm

Get ‘em Port O’John! I agree with making business pay for this. If we are going to let it happen, make Wal-mart pay for it. Just make sure they also pay for the landfills to dump all the useless, low quality crap they foist on the American public that last about the 1/4 lifespan of previously produced goods (especially clothing, shoes, and ‘name brand’ appliances that now built with the lowest tolerances for a useful life – usually less than one year.) Wal-Mart should be glad to do it. Once America defaults on loans and we are owned by China, they will be the prime purveyor to America. China looks more capitalistic every day. The Tea Party can just shut up about ‘Communist’ China.


March 21st, 2011
8:18 am

I guess readership has moved on to other topics to bitch about. An ongoing conversation within our living rooms, state capitols, churches, etc, about creating a sustainable economy and spiritually prosperous America is sorely needed.

Question Man

March 21st, 2011
8:22 am

Couldn’t it have been worse? What if Jim Stokes was still head of the Georgia Conservancy? Wouldn’t Stokes have aggressively been in favor of the dredging (and probably the nuclear reactor expansion)?


March 21st, 2011
11:17 am

There are several errors in this article, which is a persistent problem with press coverage of this project. It is complex, too complex to research the facts for most. The only press representatives who have been following the issues for the long haul and thus have the facts are Mary Landers (who covers the environmental aspects) and Mary Carr Mayle (who covers the business aspects) — both at Savannah Morning News. Members of the press who attempt to cover this issue would do well acknowledge the valuable resource in these two professional and consult them when they attempt to write intelligently about the deepening. Too much time listening to the politicians does not reinforce reality.

The easiest mistake to correct is the preposterous notion that the halls of the Georgia Ports Authority and Army Corps of Engineers are hallowed and restricted only to the connected few. Representatives from any and all environmental groups concerned with the deepening have always, and for years had easy access to the Colonel of the Savannah District of the Corps as well as to any official at GPA. I might also point out that Bill Sapp’s statement stands that “Georgia Conservancy is the only environmental group in the state willing to show that sort of support for the project.” Galloway claims that Howard begs to differ — but not a single conservation group is named as evidence.

Nevermind that the really important factor in all of this is the federal agencies — EPA, USFWS and NOAA that have all expressed serious concerns over the studies presented by the Corps.