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Wednesday, May 29, 2013 - 12:38pm

Judge Approves Harbor Settlement

A federal judge in South Carolina has approved a settlement allowing Savannah's harbor deepening to proceed.

Officials on both sides of the contentious lawsuit are hailing the agreement as a historic moment.

Environmental groups had been battling state and federal officials for years over the $650 million-dollar harbor expansion.

The settlement approved by U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleson allows the project to move forward with additional protections for water quality.

Lead attorney Chris DeScherer of the Southern Environmental Law Center says one new project will restore "oxbows" or "bends" in the river between Augusta and Savannah.

"We think that restoration of oxbows would not only provide additional habitats and wetlands," DeScherer says. "But giving the water more time to meander through these bends will improve water quality downstream."

DeScherer says the $12 million oxbow restoration project was a direct result of "outside the box" thinking that came about from seven months of court-ordered arbitration.

Savannah Riverkeeper Tonia Bonitatibus says the settlement strengthens the river’s ability to withstand harm from the deepening.

"There are still a lot of questions but the one thing that's for sure is that this is a very exciting time for the Savannah," Bonitatibus says. "It's very exciting to begin the stages of looking at such a huge comprehensive 'putting back together' of the river."

Other protections include a provision that requires the U.S. Army Corps to test and prove that the proposed oxygen injection system -- or Speece Cones -- works before it can deepen the inner harbor.

Additional funds are also provided for land conservation.

Longtime project backers were effusive.

The settlement clears a legal hurdle that threatened to stall the project for years.

Georgia officials had wanted the deepening to get underway years ago -- so its completion would coincide with the deepening of the Panama Canal.

"We are very encouraged that both states have been able to resolve this matter, and allow a project that is critical for our national and regional economies to move forward," says Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.

Deal recently signed a 2014 state budget that includes $50 million in state bonds for Savannah harbor expansion construction, bringing the total state dollars allotted to the project to $231 million.

The harbor deepening will better accommodate the larger container ships that already arrive through the Suez Canal and soon will transit the Panama Canal, when its expansion is completed in 2015.

"Now that the concern of litigation has been resolved by a universal settlement, this vital project will move forward," says Georgia Ports Authority Board Chairman Robert Jepson. "The expanded harbor will perfectly complement Savannah's landside infrastructure, which includes two Class I railroads and direct access to Interstates 95 and 16."

With the settlement finalized, the only thing that stands in the project's way is money.

Georgia officials say they're confident they'll get the bulk of federal funding.