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By a unanimous vote, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointees to the Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) board granted the Georgia Ports Authority permission to deepen the waterway leading to the Port of Savannah – an unexpected and hugely controversial decision that opponents say could cost the Palmetto State hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming decade.

The board’s decision to allow Georgia’s deepening project to proceed reversed the agency’s prior decision – reached on September 30 – to deny the permits that Georgia was seeking.

In fact, a State Senator tells FITS that the agency may have been “pressured” into taking another look at the permit applications, presumably by Haley or members of her administration.

Why would a South Carolina governor pressure a state agency to forsake the best interests of its own citizens to benefit another state?

Glad you asked …

According to our sources, monied Georgia interests with connections to the Port of Savannah threw a big fundraiser for Haley in Atlanta last month. Also, our sources say that the chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority – a major GOP donor who will select speakers for next year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida – has been negotiating with Haley and her political consultant to land the governor a coveted prime time speaking gig at the event.

Neither Haley nor Lerner returned messages seeking comment regarding those allegations. A spokesman for the Georgia Ports Authority was not immediately available for comment.

Regardless of the alleged political motivations, S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms (R- Berkeley County) said the DHEC decision would have disastrous consequences for South Carolina – both economically and environmentally.

“We will never be able to build a Jasper Ocean terminal, but they will be able to get larger ships to their port in Savannah,” an exasperated Grooms told FITS. “We get all the negative environmental impact, we lose jobs and Georgia gains jobs – and our agency is responsible!”

Grooms said he was particularly concerned about unproven environmental technology that Georgia seeks to employ as part of its dredging project.

“They are altering the Savannah River forever,” Grooms said.

Several other S.C. lawmakers – Democrats, “RINOs” and Republicans – expressed shock and revulsion at the decision.

“It was one thing when Georgia stabbed us in the back,” one Lowcountry Democrat said, referring to Georgia’s recent abandonment of a bi-state agreement for a Jasper Port. “It’s another thing to get stabbed in the back by your own governor, your own state agency.”

Haley’s decision to hand Georgia the keys to its port expansion project – at the expense of a deepwater port in Jasper County, S.C. – is a sudden and stunning reversal of her prior rhetoric.

Shortly after her 2010 election, Haley instigated a major spat with Georgia – sending a clear warning across the Savannah River regarding port-related issues.

“You now have a governor who does not like to lose,” Haley told a cheering crowd of S.C. State Ports Authority supporters in Charleston. “Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don’t have the patience to let it happen anymore.”

Last month, though – right around the time that Georgia donors allegedly began stroking checks to her campaign – Haley’s tune began to change.

“Every port is different, and every port has its challenges,” Haley told Savannah’s WJCL/FOX 28 last month. “We have to say ‘What do we need to do that is right for the region?’ Our goal is to make sure every port (in the region) is successful.”

Wait … what? We thought Haley’s job was to promote South Carolina’s best interests – particularly in light of our state’s chronically-high unemployment rate, low income levels, deteriorating competitiveness and recessionary economy.

Grooms told FITS that lawmakers are already looking into allegations of foul play related to the DHEC decision. He also confirmed that an emergency meeting of the state’s Savannah River Maritime Commission was being scheduled for next week to review the DHEC decision.

“I was told that the DHEC staff was put under pressure to take another look at the project,” Grooms said. “I don’t know who put the pressure on them, but that’s something I think we should find out.”

DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick declined to address whether or not any pressure was applied on the agency.

“The (Georgia) Ports Authority and the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers offered some concessions that we were very comfortable with,” Myrick said. “They addressed our concerns. With those concerns out of the way, we feel confident in the project. We have assurances from them.”

FITS asked Myrick if Haley or representatives of her administration pressured DHEC regarding the permits at any point in the process – whether it was urging the agency to revisit the Georgia application or to ultimately approve it.

Myrick declined to answer that question and referred us to his prior statement.

Just to be clear we asked Myrick once more, “at any time did the governor, one of her appointees or a member of her administration apply pressure on DHEC either to revisit or approve these permits?”

Once again Myrick again declined to answer the question and referred us to his prior statement.

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