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By Willoughby Mariano December 14, 2011

Claim: Savannah ports impact on environment can "clearly" be mitigated

Congress cleared the way for Georgia to transform Savannah’s harbor into the port of the future way back in 1999. Then old-fashioned Mother Nature had her say.

Planners found that deepening the port to fit modern megaships will destroy some of the delicate wetlands nearby. More than a decade later, they’re still mulling over what to do about it.

The Georgia Ports Authority, which is behind the dredging, thinks there’s little doubt planners can make it work. Executive Director Curtis Foltz wrote in an op-ed that appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it’s time to push ahead.

"The study of the Savannah River Estuary — the most comprehensive in history — clearly demonstrates the project can be constructed and impacts will be mitigated," Foltz said.

This claim puzzled the Truth-O-Meter team. If a study "clearly demonstrates" that port dredgers can address the environmental concerns, what’s the holdup?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the federal agency in charge of studying improvements to harbors and their effects. The agency wrote the study Foltz mentioned.

The port is next door to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to 10 threatened or endangered species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dredging will affect the Savannah River estuary, a type of habitat where fresh water mixes with salty ocean water. A number of species can’t reproduce without estuaries.

The corps’ "Tier II Environmental Impact Statement for the Savannah Harbor Expansion" was released in draft form for public comment in November 2010,  and details how port planners aim to ease the damage to the environment that dredging will cause.

The heads of several federal departments must sign off on the corps’ assessment before the dredging begins, and they haven’t done so yet.

We found that while the corps is optimistic that it can mitigate the impacts of the dredging, other arms of the federal government and an independent analysis found weaknesses in the plan.  

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on two of the most heavily contested issues in this debate: preserving the endangered shortnose sturgeon, and dealing with the loss of the waterway’s dissolved oxygen, which fish and other marine life need to survive.  

The endangered shortnose sturgeon is a 3-foot-long fish with a bony plate of armor and an upturned nose. Dredging the port will destroy a significant percentage of its habitat, according to the environmental impact study, so the corps proposed to expand it by building a "fishway."

This passage would connect shortnose sturgeon to other portions of the river where they can thrive. A dam currently blocks the route.   

The corps’ draft environmental study concluded that the impacts on the fish "will be mitigated," but the National Marine Fisheries Service raised objections to the corps two months after the draft’s release.

As designed, the proposed passage was "not likely to be successful in passing sturgeon to justify its use" to make up for habitat destruction, according to a letter the Fisheries Service sent to the corps.   

The two agencies worked out changes to the fishway. Last month, the Fisheries Service said the corps’ plan is "not likely to jeopardize" the shortnose sturgeon and other species, so long as the corps closely monitors the effort and meets other conditions.

Now, on to dissolved oxygen, which is what fish breathe by filtering water through their gills. Researchers expect the port’s expansion to lower the amount of dissolved oxygen in crucial parts of the harbor, so the corps proposed that they install equipment that will put oxygen back in.  

The National Marine Fisheries Service objected in a January letter to the corps. They said the equipment might not provide enough oxygen, and called it a "very risky operation with a high degree of uncertainty."

But after a few months of discussion, they sent a letter in November saying that they think the corps plan will adequately protect the fish. This letter included plans to closely monitor oxygen levels and make immediate changes if problems arise.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service also acknowledged that researchers disagree over whether the oxygen system will work. They told PolitiFact Georgia in a recent statement that they’re working on a plan to monitor the equipment when it’s installed to ensure it’s effective.

In February, a nonprofit group hired by the federal government to review the corps’ plans raised a different critique. The group said the oxygen injection system might release too much into certain areas of the harbor. This could have "lethal impacts" to fish, especially threatened and endangered species, the group’s report said.   

None of these comments said the problems are impossible to fix. They do question whether the corps plan will fall short of its goal.

We think it’s fair to say that while the corps’ environmental report may have concluded that dredgers can mitigate the environmental problems they would cause, as Foltz stated, critiques by other federal agencies and an independent study muddy the waters.

Foltz should have acknowledged their reservations. Since his statement needs more context, it meets PolitiFact’s definition of Half True.

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Our Sources

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Time’s right for Savannah project," Nov. 8, 2011

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "Draft Tier II Environmental Impact Statement for Savannah Harbor Expansion, Chatham County, Georgia, and Jasper County, South Carolina," Nov. 15, 2010

U.S. Department of the Interior, letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jan. 21, 2011

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, letter to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jan. 25, 2011

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "Final Independent External Peer Review Report for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project General Re-evaluation Report," February 11, 2011

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, letter to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, April 28, 2011

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, letter to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nov. 4, 2011

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, Frequently Asked Questions, Dec. 6, 2011

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Signs look hopeful 
for deepening river," Nov. 6, 2011

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, Threatened and Endangered Species of the Savannah Coastal Refuges, accessed Dec. 6, 2011

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "What is dissolved oxygen and why is it important?," accessed Dec. 6, 2011

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "Latest Updates on Savannah Harbor Expansion Project," accessed Dec. 7, 2011

Press statement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dec. 7, 2011

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Claim: Savannah ports impact on environment can "clearly" be mitigated

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