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Gov. Haley, SC Enviro Board Defend Port Decision

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is facing tough questions over her support of Georgia's plan to dredge the Savannah River. Her stance surprises many because it seems to run counter to her past rhetoric in the battle for port superiority between South Carolina and Georgia. Shortly before taking office, Governor Haley was every bit the bulldog when she stood in Charleston and promised South Carolina Port supporters that, "Georgia has had their way with us for too long and I don't have the patience to let it happen anymore." Fast forward to a few weeks ago, she was back before that same crowd, pleading for their understanding. "I'm gonna ask that you be super-quiet for me, because we have to have an honest discussion," began Haley at the banquet meeting. Both South Carolina and Georgia are trying to deepen their ports so they'll be ready for big ships that will come through a widened Panama Canal in 2014. For Georgia, that means dredging a portion of the Savannah River through South Carolina. South Carolina's environmental control agency initially said "no" to the request. Then the governor of Georgia came calling. He asked Governor Haley for a chance to appeal and she set up a meeting with the chairman of the state environmental board - the members of which she appointed earlier this year. Georgia agreed to some additional water quality fixes and the board reversed its decision. "For our environmental protection agency to reverse course and accept that goes way beyond regional cooperation and gets a lot closer to selling out the interests of South Carolina," says Democratic State Senator Vincent Sheheen - who lost to Haley in the governor's election. Sheheen has called for the entire environmental board to step down. He also requested a legislative inquiry, which met yesterday in Columbia. Both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate committee pushed the environmental board chairman Allen Amsler to explain why he would give Georgia's ports such a competitive advantage. Amsler kept describing Georgia as a customer that met all the requirements to get a permit. That didn't sit well with Democratic Senator Joel Lourie. "You keep talking about the customer being the state of Georgia when the whole goal here is to protect the public interest of the citizens of the state of South Carolina," said Lourie. Senators on the committee were clearly frustrated. Did it occur to you how this would hurt jobs in South Carolina? they asked. Do you realize Georgia's dredging could well ruin South Carolina's hopes for new port further down the Savannah River in Jasper County? How do we know these environmental fixes Georgia is promising will work? Environmental board members often deferred to the agency staff for those answers. Republican Senator Tom Davis was in the audience and not much impressed with, "just the overall sloppiness and lack of due-diligence that was performed." "I mean every critical question that was asked, the answer was 'I'm not sure, you'll have to ask staff,'" says Senator Davis. At least two legal challenges to the dredging decision are in the works: from an environmental group and from the Savannah River Maritime Commission which consists largely of Republican lawmakers and their appointees. But Governor Haley says fair is fair: Georgia met the requirements for the permit and the board awarded it. "I support what they did," says Governor Haley. "They did the right thing." "I respectfully submit that she's wrong," says Senator Davis. "I don't think she's looked at the implications or fully understands the implications that this bad decision has not only on Charleston - the port there - but the port in Jasper County." Governor Haley insists South Carolina doesn't need to throw up roadblocks or play politics to beat Georgia in the ports battle. But her role in the dredging decision has her on the defensive. She called a press conference on Monday to explain her stance. Remember that "Georgia's had their way with us for too long" bit she said last year? She says what she really meant was, "Georgia has had their way with us and we let them do it." "We did not get up and do anything about our ports - for 8 or 9 years," says Governor Haley. "I'm not gonna let that happen on my watch." There have been allegations - that Governor Haley pushed for the dredging decision in Georgia's favor because of a fundraiser her campaign held in Atlanta just days earlier. The luncheon raised $15,000 and Haley's campaign released a partial list of donors to prove that none were affiliated with the Port of Savannah. "In this political world everybody likes to think there's something behind everything," says Haley. "There's nothing here." Governor Haley refused to testify on the issue before the Senate Committee yesterday, saying none of her predecessors had participated in such an inquiry and she didn't want to set the precedent. During the hearing, all six members of the environmental board testified under oath that neither the Governor nor her staff interfered with or influenced their decision to approve Georgia's permit.