I've been lulled into a stupor about it lately, but when that hideous dark cloud billowed up over downtown a few Saturdays back, I was reminded just how much power the Georgia Ports Authority wields over daily life in Savannah.
The Great Port Rubber Fire of '14 was contained with minimal damage and no injuries, thanks to the Herculean efforts of local firefighters, port staff and the Coast Guard, who helped prevent the drainage of a nasty elixir of rubber juice and fire foam into the Savannah River.
But that noxious plume represented a cautionary memo that our port comes with plenty of potential hazards.
The fifth busiest in the country, the port is unarguably a vital economic generator. But it's important to note that it's commanded not in Savannah, but from Atlanta, and those inland powers have deemed it paramount to deepen 37 miles of the Savannah River by five feet to accommodate the gargantuan ships anticipated to pass through a widened Panama Canal.
Otherwise known as the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, the river dredging has been touted as our collective economic salvation and has the bumptious backing of those with vested commercial and political interests, including Gov. Nathan Deal, Rep. Jack Kingston, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed and a handful of local business magnates.
Most confounding is that this wolfpack of so-called fiscal conservatives, a group so stingy they don't even want to float the pennies it takes to fund free school lunches for the poor, would pledge hundreds of millions of Georgia tax dollars into a project that is looking more and more like a snow job.
Cost overruns recently stalled the Panama Canal construction, and while the Illuminati who oversee the world's trade will undoubtedly kiss and make up soon enough, the delay is an excellent time to take a deep breath and consider the reality of what's about to go down right outside our front porches.
Let's recap: To collect its piece of global trade pie, the Georgia Ports Authority needs a deeper channel to attract the big ships. Of the $652 million it will cost to make that happen, about half of that is going to "environmental mitigation," which is fancyspeak for "we're going to mess some shit up real bad, but it's OK 'cause we're going to spend a ton of money hiding it so you can't see it."
It will destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands and risk permanent saltwater intrusion into our water supply. Also, where exactly the toxic cadmium-laced dredgings will be dumped remains unresolved.
There's also the matter of whence the money flows: No matter how hard Vice President Joe Biden cheered on his East Coast port tour last fall, the federal government has only committed a measly $2.8 million to Georgia's port expansion. Gov. Deal has pledged the rest from state taxpayers—hey, it's not his money!
Not sold yet? There's more: Though the port in its current state supports thousands of workers, there is no evidence the expansion will add any more permanent jobs for Savannah's workforce, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' report.
You won't find any local media criticism of the port project outside of this publication, but beyond Savannah, the voices of dissent are building.
Economics reporter Dan Chapman has covered SHEP extensively for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and in a Jan. 24 AJC article that contains in its title "doubts persist," he writes that the $72 million to be spent on the technology to mechanically oxygenate the river may not be money well spent, as such technology "has never been used on such a large scale."
In the same piece, he quotes GPA executive director Curtis Foltz:
"We're as confident as can be that the Speece cones have been validated from a scientific standpoint," said Foltz. "Those that have challenged us on the effectiveness of the Speece cones aren't scientists."
Except that science hasn't validated the Speece cones at all—the concluding tests have yet to be completed, and the terms of the lawsuit settled last year by the Savannah Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center hinge upon their success.
In order to truly gauge the bubblers as effective, those tests need to be administered in the heat of summer at dead low tide, when oxygen levels are at their lowest.
You don't need to be a scientist to question the logic of SHEP, you just need to be good enough at basic math: There are only so many post-Panamax ships to go around, and with Charleston and Jacksonville in a panic to deepen their harbors, the U.S. may end up with too many belles at the ball.
Florida Times-Union journalist Ron Littlepage, a vocal critic of the JaxPort deepening, points to the absurdity of not having a master plan at the federal level: "Are we going to spend billions of dollars to deepen every port on the East Coast?"
Littlepage calls attention to the news that shipping companies have already started building vessels too big for the Panama Canal, rendering most American port expansions obsolete before they even begin.
Bottom line: Even if the dredgers dig and Speece cones bubble and all the little lost sturgeon find their way over the new locks, those big ol' ships might not come at all. As most of us have figured out by now, economics is not an exact science.
"There are unrealistic expectations that the Panama Canal expansion is some sort of magic bean and business will materialize out of thin air," global trade expert and Hofstra University professor Jean-Paul Rodrigue told the AJC.
"Anybody who talks with any certainty about the future of ports and cargo is potentially a liar or has a very vested interest."
Which brings us back home. Savannah's port is Atlanta's cash cow, and the inlanders want their deep water. Problem is, it will never be deep enough.
"For our long-term competitiveness, we need to be at 50 feet at some time in the future," attested Mayor Reed after a recent tour of the Panama Canal.
Except that the Corps has already determined 47 feet is the river's drop-dead limit. At that depth, the Corps calculates that every dollar spent deepening the river will return $5.50, of which not a penny will stay local—those are cost savings for the shippers and retailers. Any deeper, environmental risks surge and profit ratios tank.
Let's get this straight. Even if it's scooped down to the bedrock, our port will never be able to compete with the 50-foot harbors of New York or Miami that are flush with cash and have already started digging.
So in what half-baked corner of the Twilight Zone does it makes sense to deepen the river at all?
"It doesn't," confirms Steve Willis, the president of the Sierra Club's Coastal chapter and unabashed challenger of SHEP.
Though SHEP proponents would rather dismiss him as a hippie do-gooder, Willis spent 25 years in Washington, D.C. as a systems analyst and can spout the TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units that define a ship's cargo capacity) of any tonner floating past on River Street.
Not only does he visit ports when he's on vacation to places like Shanghai and Rotterdam, he studies them as a hobby. He recognizes the economic needs of our port as well as its vulnerability to terrorism.
His solution: Forgo deepening the rivers and collaborate with Charleston and Jacksonville to build a port on the ocean, just like Shanghai did—and focus on strengthening smaller ports by creating a hub system to utilize existing infrastructure.
He also proposes that the City of Savannah receive a kickback from the Atlanta-based Ports Authority instead of chasing after crumbs. The Port of Los Angeles pays its host county up to $50 per TEU during peak hours, generating millions of dollars a year for civic projects and ongoing relief for environmental pollution. (The "ongoing" part is important, as SHEP's mitigative millions are a one-time deal, regardless of future damages.)
Once upon a time, local coffers used to receive one whole dollar per TEU, but these days the city gets nothing, just bows its head like a serf as the stacked Maersk ships drift past.
"I always say Savannah may be a cheap date, but it shouldn't be free," chides Willis.
He and a growing number of local citizens want our city council to quit cowering under the big boot of Atlanta. The warehouse of burning rubber was a wake-up call that the port is inextricably entwined with our destiny as a city, and it's time to rouse to the reality that the deepening's irrevocable risks far outweigh its wishful benefits.
I'm aware that this position is considered sacrilege in certain circles. And though I carry a big spoon, believe me, I'm loathe to keep stirring up this pot.
But as the port dredging becomes an inevitability, the facts continue to confound rational thought. SHEP might someday bring some promised dollars to Atlanta, but for the people of Savannah and the rest of Georgia it can only add up to wasted tax money and needless damage to our wildlife and waterways.
Gov. Deal promised the digging could start as early as this June, whether federal funds appear or not.
Will Savannah continue to sit blithley by, watching the shovels?