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Thursday, April 12, 2012 - 12:56pm

Harbor Debate Enters New Stage

Updated: 2 years ago.
The massive CMA CGM Figaro sailed into the port of Savannah in 2010. Port officials used the opportunity to highlight their push for a deeper harbor. Now that effort is entering its final stages. (photo Orlando Montoya)

Although US Army Corps of Engineers officials released their final word on Savannah harbor deepening this week, it won't be the last in the vigorous debate over the project's merits.

The agency next week will open up a 30-day comment period, giving the public a chance to weigh in.

Georgia's top business and political leaders line up universally in favor of the project, saying it will create jobs.

US Senator Johnny Isakson addressed reporters following a visit to an economics class at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah Thursday.

"With the expansion, you'll be able to take the larger Panamax ships," Isakson says. "The port's already responsible for 295,000 jobs directly or indirectly in Georgia. It'll be a lot more than that with the deepening."

But critics like Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus question the jobs claim.

The engineers' own report says, Savannah's port will grow at the same rate with or without the $650 million project.

"The economic analysis shows that whether they deepen or not, they will grow at the same rate," Bonitatibus says. "And when you're talking about such a vast investment of funds, is this really how we should be spending taxpayer money, to do a project where the environmental negatives are so huge?"

Nearly half the project's cost will come from fixing the environmental damage it will cause.

Steve Willis of the Sierra Club plans to write in that a deeper harbor will harm the environment.

"The Savannah harbor deepening project is extremely damaging," Willis says. "That's why they've had to put nearly half the project money to mitigate the damage they're going to do."

Supporters, however, include a "who's who" of Georgia business and political leaders.

A Georgia Ports Authority press release Wednesday included quotes from 40 people, including representatives of the state's largest employers.

"Global shippers, such as retailers and manufacturers, will migrate to the most efficient and expedient options as a matter of necessity," says Home Depot's Mark Holifield, the Atlanta-based global company's Senior Vice President for Supply Chain. "The Savannah port expansion is absolutely critical for Georgia to maintain its standing as one of the world's most important shipping corridors in the years to come."

The engineers' report says, the project will provide $174 million in annual net benefits to the nation.

After these and other arguments go in the public record by May 20th, it'll be up to four Obama administration cabinet appointees to give the government's final approval or denial, called a Record of Decision.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials expect that decision by November.

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