The US Army Corps of Engineers wants to bypass South Carolina's permitting process for Savannah harbor deepening.
They're seeking an exemption that would render moot a long-awaited decision last week by South Carolina's highest court.
South Carolina Supreme Court justices ruled the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control had no authority to approve a water quality permit for the project.
That puts the state's permit in the hands of another South Carolina agency, the Savannah River Maritime Commission.
But attorney Chris DeSchearer of the Southern Environmental Law Center says if the Obama administration grants an exemption, the Corps could go ahead with the project without any South Carolina permit.
"The Secretary of the Army could seek to invoke that exemption," DeSchearer says. "And of course that decision to seek that exemption could be challenged in the court of law."
Georgia officials are hoping to start construction on the project next year, even while funding is uncertain.
DeSchearer says Congress also could allow the Corps to bypass South Carolina.
"If the Corps did obtain a Congressional exemption it might obviate the need for the Corps to obtain a water quality certification from the state of South Carolina," DeSchearer says. "But it would not obviate the need for the court to obtain other state perminating approvals."
Important decisions in the half billion dollar harbor expansion have been quick in coming since the Secretary of the Army two weeks ago officially certified the project to be in the national interest.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District spokesman Billy Birdwell says exemption request was contained in that certification, called a Record of Decision.
"The exemption is self-executing," says Birdwell. "If the criteria of the exemption are met, the exemption exists.
Georgia officials are seeking to deepen the Savannah harbor to serve larger ships.