The recent nudge by the White House, a ‘go ahead’ for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) is a tremendous win to the State of Georgia. With the development that took place on July 18, the administration decided to expedite all federal reviews and complete a Record of Decision before November of this year.
The State of Georgia ought to welcome this gesture made by the Obama administration in deepening Savannah’s harbor. The issue is about improving infrastructure, spurring the economy, and creating jobs. Most importantly, it is about geopolitical posturing for Georgia, nationally, regionally and globally with improved global trade links, investment and competitiveness. Viable economic project with a good rate of return and a relevant dose of political push, garner required investment support if the project design is sound. However, such positioning and design comes with careful planning of strategies, important, for the SHEP poses hot-button environmental challenges. Overcoming these challenges will be critical for successful implementation of the program and require concerted effort by all.
While the project promises all good things that are in dire need, jobs, infrastructure and a good economy, by no means indicates that it will be a smooth ride. Clearly, like any mega million project – the question boils down to costs and impact on external environment, particularly when design alter the natural course of ecosystem and habitat. Then it is also prudent to be financially and environmentally conscious in order to recognize risks in a timely manner. As a priority initiative, placed on the political radar screen, entices attention of stakeholders, which is a good thing. This port is included within the Presidential Executive Order issued in March 2012 together with other five major ports aimed at improving and revitalizing existing outdated designs.
Even though Savannah port is the second largest gateway in the East Coast after New Jersey, the design lacking direct accessibility to the ocean is restrictive, leading to losses in opportunity costs. The port is located 38 miles up Savannah River from the ocean and has a depth of 42 feet. These design parameters limit passage of supersized cargo ships through this harbor. The SHEP proposes to provide direct access to the ocean, dredging existing channel by deepening to 47 feet. The project costs are enormous, calculated at around $650 million involving an estimated federal funding of $400 million, set aside $1.4 billion estimated for terminal improvements. With this scale of a project, anticipating a phased design approach could also be a solution. A well-conceived model could assure the public that the idea is not to burden taxpayers in paying for marine commerce, but rather to demonstrate a coherent and convincing infrastructure plan.
While the economic merit behind design modification are understood well, community concerns in implementing a project of this scale point to environmental realities that require due attention. These concerns ought to shape developing of effective strategies to overcome environmental risks during implementation. In order to protect the estuary’s ecosystem and wildlife, several environmental challenges are foreseeable during implementation of the program.
The challenges include saltwater intrusion, increasing of dead zones due to low levels of oxygen, and destruction of natural habitat of freshwater wetlands. Sludge disposal is a core concern and at the center of debate among environmental agencies as sludge from the river contain cadmium, a toxic element. The debate is not only about keeping adequate procedures in place but also about compliance, standards and safeguards for successful implementation. However, mitigation measures and monitoring of programs alone will not suffice. Careful consideration of collaborative and adaptive strategies during, after and the early stages of implementation of the project is equally important. Cooperation, collaboration and negotiation at the local level will guide risk reduction in a transparent manner.
In the absence of a silver bullet in achieving the country’s economic goals from a national point of view, the SHEP combines as a worthy addition to a comprehensive National port vision and plan. Certainly, for Georgia, this project is an economically and politically viable option to pursue, in moving goods labeled ‘Made in the United States’ over the ocean. Along with these goods, in parallel, the project will prompt the State forward Atlantic, expanding trade-links beyond the arena of Trans-Pacific while creating jobs and stabilizing local economy. However, mitigating risks with effective environmental strategies also determine the viability of the project in the end.
As the project analysis sinks deep, into the pristine waters of the Savannah River as well as within the hearts of the local communities, realizing the promise of the estuary will require collaborative efforts from all. It is time for cooperation in shaping effective strategies.