Pork-Barrel vs. Wise Spending in the Savannah Harbor Project

There's enough misinformation circulating about the proposed Savannah harbor deepening project to make a Greek bank-loan look solid by comparison.

Consider the following in relation to recent news about South Carolina officials refusing to issue a permit needed for Savannah's harbor project under the Clean Water Act.

  • South Carolina's objections are primarily based on unanswered questions about the Corps' plan for mitigation - how they propose to compensate for, prevent, or control adverse environmental impacts. Perhaps the most dubious of many shaky mitigation proposals is the injection of oxygen into the Savannah River in an effort to prevent seasonal fish-killing dead zones. The U.S. Geological Survey reviewed the testing results for this mitigation approach and found them inconclusive, yet the Corps claims those same tests justify confidence.

  • Although the project may have been studied extensively over the past decade, a broadly-representative stakeholder evaluation group guiding this review has never sanctioned the accuracy or completeness of Corps' impact studies and findings. In fact, some long-time members of that stakeholder group, including the Center for a Sustainable Coast, have lodged serious objections about analytical assumptions, mitigation, and administrative controls. These concerns remain unresolved.

  • Of paramount importance in the midst of our national financial crisis, there has been no comprehensive analysis of port development alternatives in the Southeast - that is, a strategy for coordinating the improvement of ports and inter-connecting land transportation systems. Such a strategy is essential to assuring taxpayers that government funds in the billions of dollars will be wisely spent.

  • Official analysis by the Corps does not demonstrate any connection between this project and new jobs, or even any additional growth in port commerce above the current trend-line. In spite of this, without objective documentation to justify it, proponents of the project assert that deepening is essential for Georgia's economic prosperity.
It's supremely ironic that some of the very same strident voices that disparage deficits and government waste are clamoring for big federal money to be spent on a project that remains so tenuous.

Where is their fiscal responsibility now?

If our state and nation are to recover from serious economic decline and regain global competitiveness in the 21st century, such decisions must be guided by objective analysis of the big picture over the long term. Major problems with both the Corps assessment of the harbor project and misrepresentation of it by state officials have been caused by a narrow focus that unrealistically fragments a complex array of relevant factors, recklessly eliminating issues that are vital to ensuring responsible public spending.

We cannot assume that a host of local projects are justified on the basis of truncated analysis and parochial support advanced by the notion that if enough money is spread around there will be some sort of economic benefit. Using this rationale, every port on the east coast would be deepened, creating vast overcapacity at enormous public expense, directly conflicting with the urgent need for greater scrutiny of federal expenditures.

Similarly, Corps' analysis rests on the questionable assertion that the only environmental costs (impacts) are for 'mitigation' and that such mitigation is both accurately estimated in price and reliable in performance. Any objective review of past Corps projects demonstrates the blatantly illusory nature of such contentions.

Repeatedly, the Corps has inaccurately predicted the environmental consequences of their projects and efforts to mitigate adverse impacts - with grave outcomes. Two-thirds of highly important tidal freshwater wetlands in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge - some 8,000 acres of essential migratory bird habitat - have been destroyed by past deepening projects.

A tide gate that was intended as mitigation in a past Savannah deepening project not only didn't work, but it made impacts worse. Because Congressional approval was needed to get funds for removing it, years of costly but avoidable damage occurred before it was stopped. Numerous other examples of costly Corps failures abound throughout the nation.

Fiscal responsibility in selectively expending public funds can only be achieved with a more comprehensive, systemic approach to planning. Unless pork-barrel politics can be overcome, progress is unlikely.

David Kyler
Executive Director
Center for a Sustainable Coast
Saint Simons Island , Georgia

Voice (912) 996-0547



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