Legislative panel approves plan to deepen Charleston Harbor that includes conservation

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A legislative panel has approved the State Ports Authority's plan for deepening the Charleston Harbor shipping channel, giving the agency permission to use the $307 million set aside for the project.

The Joint Bond Review Committee voted 8-1 Tuesday, with Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler saying he can't support the $5.1 million "ransom" being spent on conservation so environmentalists won't sue.

Last month, the agency signed an agreement with the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, the Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center to provide $5 million that the trust will leverage to buy and preserve land along the Cooper River. In return, the groups won't oppose the project. The effort is in addition to any wetlands protection that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might require as part of the harbor deepening.

The ports agency also pledged to give $125,000 to the South Carolina Aquarium, which operates a hospital that treats sick and injured sea turtles.

"We do not want to go down that road of spending taxpayer dollars for ransom," said Peeler, R-Gaffney. "It makes the state appear to be "softies. They'll pay upfront. This is setting a terrible, horrible precedent."

Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach, called the agreement "bribery," but he voted for the plan — while holding his nose.

Ports President Jim Newsome called the agreement a pragmatic approach that spends just 1 percent of the project's total cost to avoid a lawsuit that could cost tens of millions of dollars and delay the project for years.

The chance of having the deepest harbor on the East Coast was well worth the expense, he said.

The Legislature's unprecedented decision in 2012 to set aside $300 million for the project recognized the need to act quickly, he added. The fund has generated $7 million in interest since then.

"That $5 million will pay dividends in time saved," said House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson.

Elizabeth Hagood, director of the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, said the agreement represents a proactive community solution that addresses the ports' environmental impact.

"This was an exceptional model of proactive compromise. Both sides gave a lot, and in the end, the state wins. We have economic growth with the expansion of our ports and significant conservation," she said. "Just the dollars alone make this a very positive outcome for both sides. To me, it's a win-win no matter."

Newsome says the entire project should be completed by the end of 2019.

"It's needed as soon as we can realize it," Newsome said. "It's nothing short of a game changer."

The Corps' tentative plan suggests deepening the inner harbor from its current 45 feet to a depth of 52 feet, so it can accommodate longer, heavier cargo vessels. The entrance channel would be extended and deepened from its current 47 feet to 54 feet. A final decision on a deepening plan is expected in September.

The dredging project is expected to cost about $510 million. South Carolina would provide 60 percent of the funds, and the federal government would provide the remaining 40 percent.

While setting aside the $300 million, legislators required approval from the Joint Bond Review Committee before the ports authority could use any of it.

"You're free to go forward," said Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, the committee chairman, after the vote.

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