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Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 1:33pm

GA and SC Air Grievances Over Ports

Georgia and South Carolina officials will keep working on a jointly-run seaport together -- but just barely.

The agreement came at an airing of grievances.

Officials from both states met Tuesday for the first time since the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project came between them.

The states have agreed to develop a jointly run port called the Jasper Ocean Terminal.

The proposed project would be on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River just downstream from Georgia's Port of Savannah.

But the meeting underscored deep divisions the two states have over whether the Savannah project threatens their joint effort.

"Some credible issues have been raised as to whether the Savannah River can the accommodate the [Savannah Harbor Expansion Project] and Jasper," says Bill Bethea, a South Carolina representative on the bi-state panel known as the Joint Project Office. "Are we trying to get too many widgets in one box?"

Georgia officials say, the SHEP will enhance the Jasper project.

Consultants hired by the JPO told the panel members that the SHEP will save the Jasper project about $300 million.

That's because the SHEP will dump tons of dredged material onto the Jasper site, raising its elevation to where it needs to be for a new port.

"We're lucky that [the Port of Savannah] is upriver of the proposed project," said Steve Green, a Georgia member of the JPO panel. "Without the SHEP there is no possibility to have a Jasper because without SHEP you don't have deep water to Jasper."

In the end, members of the cross-state body voted to delay a decision on funding a pair of expensive and contentious studies.

Those studies would have dealt with the central questions dividing the Georgia and South Carolina sides: navigation and dredged material.

"We asked the Chairman and the Vice-Chairman of the JPO to meet with the Corp of Engineers to see what studies they're going to be doing," says Bill Stern, Chairman of the South Carolina State Ports Authority. "And then, depending on the outcome of those studies, we're going to reconvene and decide how to move forward."

It's possible the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers might study Jasper navigational and dredged material issues as part of the SHEP process.

The bi-state panel did, however, vote to continue funding their joint office -- but at the bare minimum level.

That's $500,000.

That keeps hopes alive for boosters of the proposed Jasper Ocean Terminal, who says that both states and the entire region will benefit from a new port once Savannah and Charleston reach their capacity.

Jasper County, South Carolina has the most to lose if the states stop talking.

Officials in the rural, high-poverty county have been trying for more than a decade to develop a seaport.

Jasper County administrator Andrew Fulgham says, Tuesday was a small step in the right direction.

"It's a contentious issue with lots of different angles," Fulgham says. "But I think today showed progress in moving the project forward."

The $500,000 will pay for retaining consultants for another 12 months, continuing to conduct certain, less controversial studies and publishing a white paper intended to "make the case for the lay public" for the Jasper project.

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