South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said on Monday that DHEC's decision to approve an expansion of the Savannah port had nothing to do with politics and that she supported the board's decision.
"It's unfortunate in this political world that everyone likes to think there's something behind everything, but there's nothing here," Haley said. "What you have is a DHEC board that did their job and a governor who gave courtesy to another governor to have a hearing."
That courtesy, Haley said, was to ask DHEC chairman Allen Amsler to allow Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal the opportunity to present his case for the Savannah River permit in front of the DHEC board.
"Gov. Deal flew to South Carolina Oct. 4 and made the request to have the DHEC board hear us out," Haley said. "As a courtesy to the governor, as any governor would give to me, we told him absolutely, without question."
Democrats and opponents of the port criticized Haley and suggested she may have been swayed to support the Georgia permit by a fundraiser she held there Oct. 28, but Haley said the two were unrelated.
"There was a fundraiser held in Georgia and it was planned months in advance," Haley said. "No one related to the ports gave [money]. These were people like Motorola and GE and companies that we do business with. There were no ties to the ports."
Haley said she would release the list of donors from the Georgia fundraiser. According to the Post and Courier, the list included: Microsoft, Mark Burkhalter Realty, Fred Cooper of Cooper Capital, United Healthcare, Sunovion, Allergan and Robert Sheft of a flooring company and donors from McKenna Long and Aldridge, the international law firm that hosted the event.
Despite Haley's assertion that none of the donors had anything to do with the Savannah port expansion, McKenna Long and Aldridge does specialize in laws relating to ports, harbors and shipping.
Haley's statements come one day before a Senate committee is set to examine the decision and whether it was handled properly.The Savannah River Maritime Commission claimed DHEC overstepped its bounds when making the decision.
"We've gotten further and further behind," Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston) said. "Now our board has given the go ahead to benefit the state of Georgia. We need to build our port, not be looking out for the state of Georgia."
But Haley said her focus had always been on strengthening South Carolina's ports, and that Georgia's expansion shouldn't prevent them from thriving.
"You don't undercut people in order to beat them," Haley said. "We are going to have the most vibrant ports because we are going to win. I have said that I am not scared of a 48-foot, one-way Savannah when I know we're going to have a 50-foot, dual way, dual rail Panamac ship port running in Charleston.
"When I said a year ago that I was tired of having Savannah have its way with us, what I was saying was we just sat there," Haley said. "We didn’t do dual-rail, we didn’t do distribution centers. We didn’t do anything that a port should do.
"Savannah stepped up and did everything they were supposed to do, we are now going to make up for lost time."
In regards to the Savannah permitting decision, Haley said she simply encouraged the DHEC board to hear Georgia out and then removed herself from the process.
"If someone meets that benchmark [for approval], you approve it quickly and you move on," Haley said she told DHEC. "If they don’t, you answer them quickly and you move on, but we’re no longer going to be slow and we’re no longer going to be political."
The Georgia contingent's initial proposals failed to meet DHEC's benchmarks and Haley said she was prepared to support the DHEC board's decision not to grant the permit.
But, at the last minute, Haley said, Georgia upped its commitment and support of South Carolina, and DHEC responded accordingly.
"As of that afternoon [before the hearing], Allen Amsler called and talked to staffers and said, 'this isn't going to happen, they didn't meet the benchmark,'" Haley said. "We said fine.
"Over that time, [Georgia] came back, offered monetarily and in terms of other measures, 50 years worth on the dissolved oxygen and then also took on 1,690 acres of wetlands," Haley said. "They met a few other criteria and they went above the benchmark, so DHEC granted the permit.
"I support what they did. They did the right thing."