SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Government agencies and environmental groups are considering a possible settlement in a federal lawsuit over the proposed $652 million deepening of the river channel to Savannah's busy seaport. It comes after months of court-ordered mediation, the chairman of one of the agencies involved in the talks confirmed Wednesday.
The Savannah River Maritime Commission agreed to a proposed settlement Wednesday, said Dean Moss, the agency's chairman.
"The SRMC signed a proposed compromise and settlement document with the Georgia Ports Authority and the corps," said Moss, who added he could not discuss the terms or comment further until all parties had signed the agreement and it had been approved by a judge.
Georgia officials and the Army Corps of Engineers wants to dredge more than 30 miles of the Savannah River to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion. But the plans have met resistance in South Carolina, which shares the river with Georgia and has denied a state water quality permit sought by the corps.
Attorneys for the Southern Environmental Law Center, meanwhile, have sued in U.S. District Court on behalf of conservation groups from both states that say deepening the Savannah harbor from 42 to 47 feet would cause irreparable environmental damage. A judge last year ordered all parties involved into mediation to try to reach a settlement.
The Georgia Ports Authority board scheduled a 3 p.m. meeting Wednesday to discuss "pending litigation," according to a public meeting notice issued Tuesday. A port authority spokesman declined to comment further in advance of the meeting.
Chris DeScherer, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he could not discuss the status of the mediation.
The suing environmental groups contend deepening the shipping channel will dredge toxic cadmium from the river floor and dump it on the South Carolina side of the river. Other concerns include the Army Corps' plans to place large bubblers along the river designed to inject oxygen into the water to offset a reduction in dissolved oxygen that fish need to breathe.
Army Corps officials have said they're prepared to argue permits from either state are unnecessary because the federal agency has overriding authority to ensure the waterway is navigable to ships — even if that means the water must be deepened to accommodate larger vessels.
A federal judge in the Northeast agreed with that argument by the corps in 2010 in a legal dispute between Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey over plans to deepen more than 100 miles of the Delaware River.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.