Kool-Aid is sweeter than BS

There are a few things that a certain faction of Savannah holds sacred: Wild–caught shrimp, St. Patrick’s Day and the absolute faith that the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) is our collective economic salvation.

Questioning the proposed harbor deepening around these folks is kind of amusing, since their eyes go all wide and they start to sputter things like “But it’s going to create tons of jobs!” or “They’re mitigating the risks!” and “You’re clearly a communist!” It’s the fastest way to being relegated to the fringe of the party talking to someone’s senile old aunt.

Since faux pas are my forte, I can’t seem to help wading into the waters. How many jobs and where? Isn’t dredging 38 miles going to make a huge, dangerous mess? Is it truly in Savannah’s best interest?

Over in South Carolina, it’s much more socially acceptable to ask such questions openly, even—*gasp*—oppose the deepening outright. Last week, our neighbor’s House of Representatives voted to overturn a water quality permit awarded to the project by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) on the grounds that it poses public health and environmental risks. It passed 111 votes to ZERO.

The bill also retroactively strips the DHEC of decision–making powers related to the Savannah River back up to 2007, standing that the agency didn’t have the authority to grant the permit in the first place. The S.C. Senate has a similar bill on the table, and if it passes, it’ll put the shovels on hold. For now.

This has Georgia SHEP sycophants in an apopleptic tizzy. The Savannah Morning News has run editorials vilifying the senators who introduced the bill, calling them out for greenwashing their sour grapes and dismissing their handwringing over river ecology as “Grade A baloney.”

The op–eds reiterated the ballyhooed economic promises of SHEP, and as usual, crowned anyone still asking environmental questions as crackpots. Now that the resolution is official, the accusation is that the entire S.C. legislature is “drinking the Kool–Aid.”

But just who’s been swilling the propaganda–laced hooch?

We all know that the shipping industry is building Godzilla–sized ships so it can import even more crap from China, and if the Port of Savannah is to continue raking in record profits, it’s gonna need a bigger river.

While the port is unquestionably crucial to Savannah’s economy, it’s not the only factor. Tourism, attracting high–tech business, the fishing and shrimping industries—all of these feed life on the coast, and if the environment is compromised in any kind of permanent way, those will die. Are we really willing to kill the body to save an arm?

The revoked permit, issued last November to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is itself a reversal of the S.C. DHEC’s first ruling that denied permission to dredge the Savannah River to 48 feet from its mouth all the way into Port Wentworth. Environmental concerns were the crux of that ruling, specifically the already–taxed wetlands of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, much of which lies in South Carolina.

The agency spun its “no” to a “yes” after S.C. Governor Nikki Haley allowed its board to be sweet–talked (or strong–armed) by our own governor Nathan Deal and his moneyed cronies.

The Savannah Riverkeeper, the Southern Environmental Law Center and conservation groups immediately filed a lawsuit, charging that “the initial denial of the permit was based on sound science” and indicated irreparable damage to the river habitat. The S.C.–based Savannah River Maritime Commission, in conjunction with the S.C. Attorney General, is also examining whether the DHEC decision “unlawfully usurped” its power.

South Carolina citizens were outraged at Haley for the flip–flop, and not just because of displaced birds and asphyxiating sturgeon: It was a betrayal of Haley’s promise to best Georgia’s port in the race to accommodate those massive post–Panamax superships. South Carolina could have used the permit as leverage in a shared Jasper County terminal project; granting the permit means it’s got no cards left to bargain with.

The resolution to revoke the DHEC permit makes no mention of that resentment, though it seeps between the lines.

After all, who really believes that politicians give a flying duck about the environment?

On this side of the river, there’s yet to be single peep at the city or state level about the project’s projected impacts on the beach, marsh or water supply. Certain Georgians can jeer all they want that South Carolina’s earth consciousness is self–serving, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. In this climate of boot–licking, the bill resurrects the concerns over small details, such as where SHEP will dump the cadmium–laden waste from the dredging.

(As of now, Georgia port officials and the Corps find the Jasper County site most convenient. Which, if you live in South Carolina, is basically having your neighbor’s 500–ton dog poop on your lawn.)

“This is as bad as when the Indians sold Manhattan for $27 in trinkets, but at least they got trinkets,” S.C. Senator Glenn McConnell told reporters. “All we get is toxic sludge.”

Even if the proposed halt of the expansion is just a chess move by politicians, it shines a light on other ecological issues that aren’t easily dismissed if you’re not content to be a pawn: The proximity of the dredge depth to the barriers of the Upper Floridan Aquifer and the already–low levels of oxygen in the Savannah River pose risk to Savannahians in the form of contaminated drinking water and regular fish kills.

Yes, the Corps of Engineers has spent $30 million and the last ten years examining the logistics. It says the impact to the aquifer will be “insignificant” and plans to mitigate the oxygen levels by utilizing Speece cones, giant Darth Vader-esque bubble machines that have never been utilized on a large scale.

Before we toss that back, let us ask the bartender: Isn’t this the same group who said the levees would never break?

The claims that SHEP will be the savior of Savannah’s economy also warrants deeper digging. Gov. Deal recently wrote an essay directed at Congress that the $600 million in federal funding SHEP needs is well–deserved as it’s a “jobs–creating project.”

But there is not a speck of data showing many it might create, how long they might last and whether any of those jobs will be hiring from Savannah’s worker pool.

There’s no doubt such a massive works project will have “generational significance,” as Deal decreed at a Georgia Chamber breakfast last week. The question for those of us who actually live on the river is whether we’re willing to let the next generations live with the outcome of the risks instead of the benefits without further due diligence.

If you’re wondering the same thing but have been afraid to ask, come hang out with me. I’ll be over here with Auntie.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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