CHARLESTON — An environmental group suggests that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expand its study of the Charleston Harbor shipping channel to review whether deepening other harbors in the region might make more sense.
"To rationally evaluate the Charleston port deepening, the corps must evaluate whether another harbor could be deepened and improved for a lesser amount of money and fewer environmental impacts," suggests the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League in commenting on the Charleston study.
The comments are among dozens the Charleston District of the corps recently received as to what should be studied in preparation for an estimated $300 million channel deepening project.
The 10 pages of comments, filed for the league on behalf of the Southern Environmental Law Center, note that the corps is considering deepening multiple harbors on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to handle larger ships expected to call once the Panama Canal is widened in two years.
"The corps is evaluating each proposal in isolation from one another which will lead to duplicative and costly overcapacity," said the comments by Christopher DeScherer, a senior attorney for the law center. "Only by considering related and similar projects together will true cumulative environmental impacts be exposed."
Proposals to deepen both the Savannah, Ga., and Charleston shipping channels are expected to cost $900 million.
"The projects in the South Atlantic together, such as Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville (Fla.) present heightened risks to species such as the right whale and the shortnose sturgeon," the comments said, adding that the projects "would cumulatively alter and destroy rare tidal areas, including wetlands and marshes of national importance."
Corps spokeswoman Glenn Jeffries said about 80 comments were received from the public as well as state and federal agencies on what the deepening study should include. The district is expected to have the outline of the study set this summer.
She said that all comments are considered but could not comment specifically on the league suggestion.
But a local district office can't begin looking at other areas of the nation as it analyzes the Charleston project, said Doug Garman, a spokesman at corps headquarters in Washington.
"That study is specific to that project, based on the conditions they are looking at environmental and all the other factors they need to look at," said he said. "Also those studies are co-sponsored, so there has to be a local sponsor." In the case of Charleston, that co-sponsor in the South Carolina State Ports Authority.
The studies include a specific cost-benefit analysis for each project.
"You're going to have different types of places where dredge material needs to be placed and how far is that from where you are going to be dredging, so there are all sorts of different things that get built into that cost analysis," he said.