SAVANNAH — The state’s commitment to deepening Savannah’s harbor could extend to starting the work at state expense, Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters attending an event near the Georgia Ports Authority’s largest facility.
Deal spoke Wednesday at the 75th anniversary ceremony for the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center. Last summer, the state-owned center was placed under the control of Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. The center is on a road to the Port of Savannah’s Garden City Terminal. After his remarks, Deal took questions from reporters.
The state budget he had signed the previous day includes another $50 million for the port project. This adds to prior years’ allotments for a total of $231 million in state funding now available. But the harbor deepening is projected to cost $652 million, and state officials still want the federal government to pay the larger share.
“Well, obviously we continue to expect the federal government to come forward with their share, which the majority of the cost was intended to be borne by the federal government, and remembering that this was initially authorized by congressional action back in 1999,” Deal said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies have agreed to the plan. But federal budgeting for the project has been tiny compared to the state commitment.
“We’re very pleased to have received the so-called record of decision where all federal agencies that have to sign off on the project gave it a go-ahead last fall, and now we’re waiting for the federal government to come forward with more money,” Deal said. “The president did have $1.28 million in his budget. That is a small toe in the door, but we’re pleased that it is there. It is a recognition, I think, on his part that this is a project that has national concern and national importance.”
Deal indicated that the state might start on its own if the federal government allows it. However, he said this could require that the cost stated in the federal authorization be increased, since the estimate has increased substantially since 1999.
“We are hopeful that that will happen,” the governor said.
But state officials will continue to press President Barack Obama and Georgia’s members of Congress for the federal government to pay its full share, Deal added. He said “time is of the essence” with expansion of the Panama Canal slated to be complete by early 2015 and the harbor deepening expected to take three years. The project will allow larger ships, which can then pass through the canal, to dock at Savannah.
A reporter asked Deal if he had an opinion on whether King America Finishing should get a new permit to discharge waste into the Ogeechee River. After a record fish kill downstream from the plant in May 2011, the Environmental Protection Division issued a consent order requiring the company to fund $1 million worth of river cleanup projects. The agency issued a draft permit in March, which replaces an earlier draft permit EPD withdrew after protests and litigation threats from property owners along the river and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.
“We know that we don’t want anything that’s going to pollute our waterways,” Deal said. “We don’t want anything that’s going to make our state a worse place from the standpoint of environmental degradation.”
But he said he is confident that EPD is working hard to make sure the river is monitored properly and that corrective steps take place. He expressed confidence in EPD Director Judson H. Turner and the agency’s board.
“Yes, I think we have a great director of our Environmental Protection Division and we have a great board,” Deal said. “I think they’re all conscious of this problem and hopefully are working to resolve it.”