Savannah Harbor Expansion Project halfway done, economic benefits touted but environmental concerns remain for some

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It’s a project with a price tag that is now nearly $1 billion (973 million to be exact) but supporters say it’s worth every dime. And now SHEP (Savannah Harbor Expansion Project) is halfway complete. This week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans an event to make the completion of the dredging of the outer harbor. “But now that the outer harbor is deepened that’s a clear signal that this project is on its way and it won’t be long before the whole channel’s deepened,” says Russell Wicke from the Corps of Engineers.

He says the outer harbor is “everything that’s in the Atlantic Ocean or I like to say from Fort Pulaski roughly 20 miles out to sea. The inner harbor is considered the rest and that starts at Fort Pulaski and goes roughly 20 miles inland to the Garden City terminal.”

Of course the issue for the inner harbor dredging is the Savannah River. An environmental project must be completed to make sure that oxygen (depleted by the expected dredging) will be replaced so fish continue to survive and thrive.

It was in 1999 that SHEP was finally approved by Congress. Now 19 years later, the Port of Savannah is even larger and the deepening project has taken on new importance. That’s because large ships coming through the expanded Panama Canal are loaded with even more cargo. In some cases, some of those large ships are already calling on the Port of Savannah, but because of the depth of the river (42 feet) they cannot be fully loaded.

“When a vessel comes in and it’s got to be limited to 42 feet but it could handle up to 47 feet that’s containers that aren’t coming to Savannah as a result of that,” says Griffith Lynch, CEO of Georgia Ports Authority,

Lynch says the Port of Savannah is now the fourth largest in the United States. “We have the large ships here today. Up to 14,000 TEU ships started calling this year, before that it was 10,000 TEU ships,” he told us.  (A TEU is one 20 foot container.)

Lynch went on to tell us “We’ve seen this progression ever larger vessels calling Savannah. So they’re but we’re not fully taking advantage of them. The imports are traditionally less weight than the exports so we’re getting all that import business but those natural (Georgia) products like clay and paper products and things like this that traditionally have been exported through Georgia – some of them can’t be loaded on these vessels as a result and so if you have 47 feet of depth that’s several hundred more containers that can be loaded on these ships.”

Lynch having the project 50 percent complete is definitely a “milestone.”

“And that’s a big deal because these milestones mean so much toward completion of the project,” Lynch told us. “We’ve been talking about the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project for many years and now we are nearing completion.”

He said SHEP simply represents the future. “What it ultimately means is economic development, jobs for folks in Savannah and throughout Georgia.. It’s terminal jobs, it’s technical jobs we have management people at the Georgia Ports. It’s longshoremen jobs, it’s warehouses that get built, it’s warehouse jobs, it’s trucking jobs. Not only is it more jobs but it’s goods that we buy in the case of imports so if you go to a Target or a Walmart or any of these stores, Coles, you’re buying those goods that came off off of these ships,” he told us.

The Corps of Engineers says by early 2022, the dredging may be complete. “The National benefit is immense. For every dollar invested there’s a 7 dollar and 30 cent return,” said Wicke.

He also said consumers who buy stuff on Amazon or who go to Walmart should see products continue to be competitive in cost or even lower. “And it keeps the cost low for the American consumer and that is for for the whole nation, Wicke said. “So the Corps of Engineers does its analysis based on the national economy. This is great for the region but it’s also great for the entire nation,”

While Wicke says there is no down side to the river dredging, in terms environment some are still concerned. Jacob Oblander, the outreach coordinator for the Savannah Riverkeeer says the main concern is that dredging can 1) stir up chemicals trapped in dirt and sand at the bottom of the river and 2) affect the fish. He says that’s because deeper water usually can hold less oxygen especially when it gets warm int he summer.

The Corps is currently building an elaborate system using “Speece cones to take water from the river, put dissolved oxygen into that water and then put the new and improved water back into the river. “The Speece cones are something we’re worried about, i.e. if they’re actually going to be effective,” said Oblander. “It’s a giant bubbler basically, imagine a fish tank and oxygen hits the water and pumps oxygen in.”

Oblander says a big concern is that kind of system has never been used on such a large scale. The cones are still being tested and he says another concern is that they’re being tested now in February instead of summer when the levels of oxygen will naturally be lower. “The Corps is confident this will all work, but so far we’re aren’t,” said Oblander. “But we’re watching and other groups are watching, too.”

The Corps must provide testing that the dissolved oxygen injection system is working before dredging of the river can be contracted. But Wicke believes the system and its expense will prove worth it in the end. “If we can mitigate for any aspect of the oxygen, it’s well worth it to be able to have that national benefit to the economy,” he told us.

Lynch says if the Port doesn’t have the big ships coming here that transportation to deliver goods to stores would increase and in turn raise prices for customers.

“This is the highest payback to the nation of any channel deepening project,” said Lynch.

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