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Mediation resuming in Savannah River suit

Bruce Smith, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- Attorneys working to settle a federal lawsuit challenging the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel meet again this week in another round of court-ordered mediation.

Attorneys for both sides are to gather in a private session in U.S. District Court in Charleston on Wednesday.

Environmental groups in South Carolina and Georgia sued just over a year ago contending that deepening the 32-mile shipping channel will dredge toxic cadmium from the river floor and dump it on the South Carolina side of the river.

The complaint was brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Savannah Riverkeeper based in Augusta, Ga., the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

It notes the corps' own draft environmental impact statement on the deepening indicated cadmium in the clay in the river bottom would be removed during the deepening.

The groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers saying the agency needs a South Carolina pollution permit for the work. The Georgia Ports Authority later entered the suit on the side of the corps.

The authority wants the channel deepened to handle larger container ships that will routinely be calling when the Panama Canal expansion is open to shipping traffic in two years. The project would deepen the channel from 42 feet to 47 feet.

Attorneys for both sides met behind closed doors in Charleston for two days last November and issued a statement in January simply saying that progress was being made and another mediation session was scheduled that month.

There is no indication in court documents that subsequent sessions have been held until this week's scheduled meetings.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has ordered that attorneys not discuss the specifics of the talks. He has appointed former South Carolina U.S. Rep. John Spratt to oversee the talks and, in an earlier order, asked the parties "to participate fully and in good faith in court-ordered mediation."

The corps last year notified Congress it wants an exemption from the requirement that South Carolina issue a water quality permit for the work to prevent what it called "inappropriate delays" in the project.