Senate panel clears Haley staffers in port dispute

COLUMBIA (WACH) - The Senate Medical Affairs Committee cleared Governor Nikki Haley TMs office of unfairly influencing DHEC TMs decision to grant a water permit, clearing the way for the expansion of the Port of Savannah.

Critics say that permit will give Georgia millions of dollars in potential commerce, which would have otherwise gone to South Carolina. Governor Nikki Haley TMs Chief of Staff Tim Pearson testified for nearly 90 minutes to a senate panel Thursday.

"You TMre swearing before this committee that you did not interfere or influence on behalf of the governor or anyone else, you did not, is that correct? asked Chairman Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee.

That TMs correct I did not," answered Pearson.

Read more Email could be critical in Senate port hearing Panel questions DHEC board on Georgia port permit Haley defends deal with Georgia on water quality

Pearson told lawmakers Georgia Governor Nathan Deal asked Haley for the DHEC board to hear an appeal of the staff's initial denial of a water permit request. The DHEC board eventually over ruled the staff.

Orangeburg Senator Brad Hutto has an anonymous email from a DHEC staffer who felt pressured to compromise on the matter.

It TMs tough out there in the job market, said Hutto. "Nobody wants to lose their jobs, over doing something they TMre not supposed to, but at the same time I think this person thought the process had been subverted.

Hutto and other members of the committee were suspicious about the timing of the successful appeal, which happened shortly after an October fundraiser Haley held in Atlanta.

There was no pressure put on anyone to change this decision one way or the other, Pearson told the panel.

Following Thursday's hearing, Governor Nikki Haley went into attack mode, defending her staffers and accusing lawmakers for playing "political games" while more pressing issues face the state.

"You had a group of legislaters who chose to show their political muscle and get good people up there. You can shoot at me all you want to. That's my job and I'll take it every time," said Gov. Haley. "They don't deserve what had to happen today. They shouldn't have to raise their hand and say that this is the truth. Just imagine if we had taken that same time that they took in those meetings and those subpoeanas and put that into jobs and the economy."

Haley also accused her former gubernatorial opponent Senator Vincent Sheheen of orchestrating the hearings. Sheheen, a Democrat, is not a member of the Senate Medical Affairs Committee.

Haley's claim notwithstanding, lawmakers both Republican and Democrat, said the hearings were necessary to get to clear up an issue that critics argue could have significant economic and environmental impact on South Carolina for decades to come.

Conservation groups in two states have appealed South Carolina's water quality permit for the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel.

Attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the appeal in the state's Administrative Law Court.

The appeal contends the Department of Health and Environmental Control improperly approved the permit allowing deepening of the channel so larger ships may call at Georgia's ports. The permit had originally been opposed by the DHEC staff.

The appeal contends the dredging will deplete dissolved oxygen, destroy habitat of the endangered shortnose sturgeon and destroy hundreds of acres of freshwater marsh.

It was filed on behalf of the Savannah Riverkeeper, based in Augusta, Ga., as well as the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

Richland County Democrat Senator Joel Lourie says he also plans to introduce a resolution to the General Assembly next month condemning the DHEC board TMs decision.