Savannah, Ga. (WSAV) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it’s made a big step in proving that the dredging of the Savannah inner harbor should move forward.
The inner harbor (19 miles from Fort Pulaski to Garden City and includes a portion of the Savannah River downtown) is the final part of SHEP or Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.
For the past two months, the Corps has been testing a system designed to put oxygen into the water. This environmental mitigation measure is mandated.
“The testing was a requirement of a settlement agreement that we had with some opponents who challenged the project legally and the idea behind it was they wanted to be sure that the system worked before we started dredging the inner harbor,” said Russell Wicke with the Corps of Engineers, Savannah District.
The legal settlement is with the Savannah Riverkeeper and a number of other organizations including South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). The concern for those groups has been that dredging will take needed oxygen for fish out of the water.
A $100 million Dissolved Oxygen System is designed to replace that depleted oxygen, especially during hot, summer months when it is needed most. There has been some speculation from the lawsuit participants on whether the elaborate system (referred to as bubblers by some critics) would work as designed. One concern has been that there has never been a system like this used for such a large project.
But the Corps of Engineers says after two months of testing the system is proving that not only can it work, but the Corps says it’s more successful than they had actually hoped.
“Not only is the Dissolved Oxygen getting to all the places that our model said but it’s being distributed throughout the harbor better than we anticipated,” said Wicke. “And although what we’re saying today is based on preliminary analysis, I would call it a big milestone because it does look like it’s doing what we say it’s doing.”
Wicke says another test using another system being set up at Plant McIntosh will take place by next summer.
“If the rest of our analysis looks like what we’ve seen so far (when our report is published in August) that will be our published, final conclusion on the tests and that will enable us to move forward with construction on the inner harbor.”
Wicke says the dredging of the inner harbor might begin by as early as September.
Word of the first round of test results had not reached Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus who is one of those who sued over the environmental impacts of the dredging.
“For years we’ve been waiting for these things go online and then show us if they work or not,” she said referring to the large cones used in the Dissolved Oxygen System.
Bonitatibus said she certainly won’t pronounce the system a success until her organization sees the data from the first round of tests and as well as the next testing. She said all litigants are supposed to be informed by the Corps regarding results of the testing “to assess before moving forward.”
“So now the Corps has put this data out glorifying that this thing is working without actually providing that data to us and saying they may not provide it until August,” said Bonitatibus .
Bonitatibus expressed concerns that if lawsuit plaintiffs don’t agree with the Corps assessment of the data or if there are issues that crop up in the second tests – that time may run out for plaintiffs to object to starting the inner harbor dredging work.
“In no way, shape or form to do I think any harbor dredging can occur until after that process is completed,” she said
Bonitatibus said there were originally environmental concerns for a reason, again the health of fish and marine life.
Wicke told us that the testing of the system at Hutchinson island showed that the dissolved oxygen is reaching to the bottom depths of the water where it needs to go.
He also said while this is preliminary testing, the results are encouraging and so much so that he felt comfortable indicating that possible September date for inner harbor dredge work to finally begin.
“That’s the last step in getting the channel in the condition that we need to get it to reap the benefits of SHEP,” said Wicke. “I would remind people that this is a great project that enjoys widespread national support, although it’s happening n in Savannah that doesn’t mean that only Savannah gets the benefits, it’s going to yield national benefits.”