Federal bill calls for Jasper port study

BEAUFORT -- A $23 billion water resources bill passed by Congress this week that would bankroll port projects across the nation also directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study building a port in Jasper County but lacks a timeline, money and likely won't produce a report until 2009 at the earliest.

Permission to construct the port depends largely on the corps' study, but the agency must wait until the 2009 federal budget cycle to ask the president to earmark money to complete it, according to corps spokespeople.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., elbowed the Jasper amendment into the Water Resources Development Act earlier this year at Gov. Mark Sanford's behest.

President George W. Bush is expected to veto the bill. But the overwhelming support for it in both houses likely will override his decision.

Sanford's chief of staff, Tom Davis, touted the bill as "a huge boost" to the port's success.

"It's a lot more powerful when you have Congress directing (the corps): 'Yes, you will do this,'" he said.

Already, corps engineers are finding answers to the Jasper site's feasibility through a current study on expanding the Port of Savannah, just 8 miles downriver, said Billy Birdwell, spokesman for the corps' Savannah District.

"Those studies that directly apply (to the Jasper port), that's a good thing," he said, "so we don't have to go back and redo them."

But questions remain about turning the 1,800 acres in Jasper County owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation into a bi-state shipping terminal.

One problem is how to deal with sediment the corps regularly dredges from the river to keep the channel open and piles onto that land.

"Maybe some of it could be used, maybe it would need to be moved, that all has to be studied," Birdwell said.

Plans for the port have been tied up for years in legal fights for control between Jasper County and the S.C. State Ports Authority.

This spring, the Legislature barred the county from developing a port for three years, making way for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and Sanford to agree to cooperate in creating the Jasper terminal.

A preliminary agreement between the states that lays out how each will contribute to the project should be ready in about another week, according to Davis.

But until the corps files a report and permitting begins, the agreement will remain a piece of paper.