Savannah River dredging permit dividing South Carolina

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - All six members of the Board of the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) told a state committee, Governor Haley put no pressure on them to approve a permit to dredge the Savannah River on Tuesday.

This comes after the board rejected the dredging permit in October. And since, the debate over ports in the Southeast is dividing South Carolina.

The reversal of DHEC's is troubling SC State Senator Larry Grooms, who says he's got a sinking feeling about the whole situation.

"Right now we're having to deal with the aftermath of the worst decision our environmental agency, DHEC, has ever made," says Grooms.

On Monday, Gov. Nikki Haley held a press conference saying she did nothing wrong involving the approval of a dredging permit for the Savannah River. The river lies along the South Carolina and Georgia borders, separating the two states.

"In this political world some people like to think there's something behind everything," said Haley in Columbia. "There's nothing here."

But Grooms thinks there's a lot more just under the surface.

"Something is definitely wrong," says Grooms. "I hope we will get to the bottom of it."

That is, before the Georgia Ports Authority gets to the bottom of the Savannah River making it deeper than the Charleston Harbor.

Currently the Savannah River is 42 feet deep. If the river is dredged under the current permit the river will become 48 feet deep. Making it three feet deeper than the Charleston harbor.

"Anytime there's a decision of this magnitude and a state agency reverses themselves like they did for no apparent reason," says Grooms. "There had to be some sort of political influence."

But Governor Haley says that's not what happened.

"What you have is a DHEC board that did their job," said the Governor. "What you have is a Governor that gave courtesy to another Governor to have a hearing and that's basically it."

But State Senator Grooms says it's about much more than that.

"What's a stake is billions of dollars of economic activity," says Grooms. "What's at stake are jobs and new jobs."

Charleston was once fourth-busiest port in North America, but now the Lowcountry port has slipped all the way to number 12 in the nation. Now the port of Savannah is the fourth busiest port in the U.S.

With giant ships scheduled to come calling to East coast ports in 2014, Grooms says Charleston's port needs all of the funding improvements it can get to compete for business.

In another twist, Grooms also serves as a member of the Savannah River Marine Commission, a group that deals with the state of Georgia on all matters concerning the Savannah River.

He says the dredging permit was approved without consulting the Commission, a move he believes should make the deal invalid in a court of law.

SC State Senators are considering subpoenaing Governor Haley's lawyer, her Chief of Staff, and two others members of her team to answer their questions about how the DHEC permit was approved.

Before they take that step, they say they're going to ask them to testify one more time.

Grooms' next step is "to do everything I can to stop this permit to go through."

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