SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) -- The federal government said Saturday it has given final approval to a $652 million project to deepen the river channel to the Port of Savannah to make room for supersized cargo ships.
The project has been a priority for Georgia for 16 years, but it also still faces a court challenge in neighboring South Carolina.
The Army Corps of Engineers said construction on the massive project could begin as early as summer 2013, and Georgia port officials hope to have the work finished by 2016. It will involve scooping 5 feet of mud and sand from the riverbed along 38 miles of the Savannah River, deepening the stretch between the port and the Atlantic Ocean from 42 feet to 47 feet.
"The Record of Decision affirms that deepening Savannah harbor to 47 feet is economically viable, environmentally sustainable, and in the best interests of the nation," said Col. Jeffrey Hall, commander of the Army Corps' Savannah District.
Georgia, along with other East Coast ports, is scrambling to deepen its harbor to accommodate giant ships expected to begin arriving through the Panama Canal after it completes a major expansion in 2014. The upgraded canal will handle ships needing 50 feet of water.
Georgia officials say the Savannah port needs deeper water to remain competitive. Savannah has the fourth-busiest container port in the U.S. and handled nearly 3 million cargo containers in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
The Army Corps said the document giving final approval was signed Friday by Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant Army secretary for civil works. Hall noted three other federal agencies -- the Department of Commerce, the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency -- had previously given their approval.
The decision comes six months after the Army Corps issued its final report recommending the harbor deepening. But Georgia ports officials have been waiting much longer. The corps spent $41 million studying the project since it was first proposed.
The port at Charleston, S.C., one of Savannah's nearest and fiercest competitors, is seeking to deepen its harbor from 45 to 50 feet. Meanwhile, lawmakers in South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River with Georgia, have opposed the harbor deepening in Savannah. Environmental groups have filed three legal challenges to the project that are pending in South Carolina courts.
Gov. Nathan Deal has made the harbor expansion an economic priority. State taxpayers would foot 30 percent of the cost, with the federal government paying for the rest.
The Army Corps says more than $292 million will go to environmental mitigation. That includes building a river bypass around a dam near Augusta to let endangered shortnosed sturgeons reach waters expected to boost their spawning success. Savannah's water treatment plant would get a 38-acre retention pool to serve as a backup water source for when pipe-corroding chlorides get too high during droughts.
The Corps also plans to create 2,200 acres of new wetlands to make up for an estimated 223 acres of valuable freshwater marsh expected to be lost to saltwater intrusion, most of it within the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. And it plans to install machines to pump oxygen to the river bottom to make up for a loss in dissolved oxygen.
But environmentalists are still not convinced those efforts will be enough to repair environmental damage done to the river.