Four years after agreeing to move forward cooperatively with a deep water port in Jasper County, S.C., the state of Georgia has back-stabbed South Carolina by announcing its intentions to use our state as a dumping ground for Savannah’s port expansion plans.

Understandably, Georgia’s plan to dump dredged spoil onto the South Carolina side of the Savannah River as part of its planned expansion of Savannah Harbor has Palmetto politicians enraged. In addition to violating the terms of a bi-state agreement reached in 2007, Georgia’s action is also in direct contravention of federal legislation signed that same year.

“Included within the bi-state compact is a duty for both states to act in good faith toward building the port,” S.C. Sen. Tom Davis told FITS. “To the extent that Georgia’s Department of Transportation and the Georgia Ports Authority are associating themselves with a plan to dump spoil on the Jasper site over the next fifty years, there is a very strong possibility that they may be breaching that duty of good faith.”

Strong possibility? More like definite reality as far as we’re concerned …

Signed in 2007, the bi-state compact committed both South Carolina and Georgia to the construction of a deep water port in Jasper – which would be owned by both states and operated using innovative public-private partnerships. Additionally, a proviso to the 2007 Water Resources Development Act passed by the U.S. Congress directed the Army Corps of Engineers to release a spoil easement on the site so that a port could be developed there.

Using the site as a dumping ground for the next half century? That’s not part of the plan … in fact, it runs completely counter to the plan. As a result, Georgia is now facing a litany of legal contradictions (and likely legal challenges) that could threaten its harbor plans.

Beyond justifying its about-face, Georgia must now answer several important questions. For example: Is the proposed Jasper port a more viable and less costly alternative (economically and environmentally) to dredging the Savannah River all the way to the Georgia port facilities – which are located 26 miles upriver? We think not. Additionally, is Georgia now assisting the Corps of Engineers in breaching a congressional directive regarding the release of the Jasper site from the spoil easement? We think so.

Given the billions of dollars potentially at stake, an unlikely ally in the S.C. Senate has joined forces with Davis in an effort to protect South Carolina’s economic interests. Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman – the state’s “Godfather of Pork” – is teaming up with Davis and other state lawmakers to challenge Georgia’s plans.

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley – who talked a tough game last November regarding South Carolina competing with its “neighbor” to the south – declined to comment for this report and has yet to address the issue publicly.

However, we fully expect her to engage at some point. We also fully expect S.C. Senators Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint (and our entire U.S. Congressional delegation) to protect our state’s rights under the 2007 law.

Ironically, Georgia officials claim that their plan is in South Carolina’s best interests – and that permitting the soil to be dumped will actually trim the costs of a proposed deep water port facility by $200 million. A source close to the debate also reminded us that the land in question is owned by the state of Georgia – another example of our state’s lack of foresight.

South Carolina’s management of its port assets – both in Charleston and at the proposed deep water port site in Jasper – can only be described as abysmal.

Once the fourth-busiest port in America, Charleston has seen its competitive position plummet over the last eight years. In fact, the port has slipped all the way to No. 12 in the nation according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

Why? Well, our state continues to operate its port system under a 1950’s-style “total state control” model that forbids private investment in public infrastructure. Meanwhile our competitors – like Alabama and Virginia – have dramatically expanded their port infrastructure (and created thousands of new jobs) by leveraging private investment.

On top of that, entrenched special interests in Charleston continue to prevent the S.C. State Ports Authority (SPA) from moving forward with the Jasper project – something the agency promised it would do five years ago.

For all his talk of supporting free market reforms and economic competitiveness, former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford was a total failure on this issue – appointing SPA board members who have toed the line for the failed status quo. That’s even more disappointing considering that Sanford, House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Senate President Glenn McConnell were specifically warned in July 2006 that South Carolina’s restrictions against free market participation in port expansion were “counterproductive” and would “discourage investment” in our facilities.

Boy has that ever come to pass …

Ports authority officials insist they are not dragging their feet on the Jasper project and say that the SPA’s new leader – Jim Newsome – has helped bring back some of the lost “volume” at the Port of Charleston. Earlier this week, the SPA announced that Charleston experienced a 17 percent increase in traffic in 2010 over the previous year.

Still, much more work needs to be done … and our lawmakers seem to be moving the SPA in the opposite direction of accountability.

In addition to appointing real free market conservatives to the port board – people who genuinely support public-private partnerships and the Jasper project – let’s hope Haley also aggressively supports our state’s interests in this latest fight.

After all, she helped pick it …