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Haley defends deal with Georgia on water quality

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday defended actions that advanced Georgia's plans to dredge the Savannah River in a move that state legislators said betrayed South Carolina's interests.

Haley has faced weeks of criticism after the Department of Health and Environmental Control approved water quality permits Georgia needs to expand its port.

"I stand by everything and I know it's unfortunate in this political world everybody likes to think there's something behind everything," Haley said. "There's nothing here. And what you have is a DHEC board that did their job. What you have is a governor that gave courtesy to another governor to have a hearing."

Legislators on Tuesday hold a hearing on the issue and wanted to question Haley. She said she won't be there out of concern for setting a precedent that would require governors to respond to legislators' questioning. Haley has at least twice appeared before legislative committees voluntarily to push her priorities.

The stakes are high with states rushing harbor channel deepening projects as ports prepare for super cargo ships that will bring goods through a deeper and wider Panama Canal in 2014.

Georgia appears to be on a faster track for federal funding for deepening needed for those ships than competitors up the coast in Charleston. Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is pushing legislation that will put South Carolina's state's port deepening project back on track.

On Nov. 10, DHEC's board approved the water quality permit Georgia needed to dredge the Savannah River, the states' shared boundary. Less than two months earlier, the agency's staff had rejected the permit applications and said it would cause unacceptable harm to the waterway's endangered sturgeon and fragile marshes.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, however, visited Haley and personally asked for a hearing with the DHEC board, a panel she appoints. She said out of courtesy she called the board's chairman to ask for a speedy hearing. Georgia initially failed to meet the state's benchmarks. It came back with new assurances that it would make sure oxygen levels remain adequate to support animals and plants that depend on the river and won the permit.

Four days later, the Savannah River Maritime Commission voted unanimously to invalidate the permits. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms said the issue over the Georgia permits is heading to court. Grooms and Haley were part of a crowded GOP field for the 2010 nomination for governor, but he dropped out relatively early in the race.

Legislators created the Maritime Commission in 2007 to represent South Carolina's interests in the river, including dredging.

Grooms said dredging material from Georgia's project would be put on a site South Carolina wants to use for a port in Jasper County. Because of that, "there will be no Jasper ocean terminal in anyone's lifetime," Grooms said.

Haley said South Carolina doesn't need to tie up Georgia's permit with bureaucracy. South Carolina, she said, will compete and win port business with Georgia.

Meanwhile, Haley has had to deal with her own harsh rhetoric on Georgia's port ambitions as well as the appearances created by a Georgia fundraiser that came to light after she met privately with Deal on Oct. 4.

"Georgia has had their way with us and we let them do it," Haley said Monday, noting the state didn't try to do enough to compete with its neighbor. "I'm not going to let that happen on my watch."

Haley said the Atlanta fundraiser was planned months in advance. "These were people -- Motorola and GE -- and companies that we do business with. There were no ties to the ports," Haley said.