CHARLESTON, S. C. (AP) — The sides in a federal lawsuit challenging the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel say progress is being made toward reaching a settlement.

Environmental groups in both South Carolina and Georgia have sued, saying that deepening the shipping channel will dredge toxic cadmium from the river floor and dump it on the South Carolina side of the river. The groups contend the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers needs a South Carolina pollution permit for the work.

The Georgia ports want the channel deepened to handle the larger container ships that will be calling when the Panama Canal expansion is open to shipping traffic in 2015. The project would deepen the river separating the two states and its harbor entrance channel from its current 42 feet to 47 feet.

Attorneys met behind closed doors in Charleston for two days in November to try to reach a settlement. U. S. District Judge Richard Gergel has ordered that attorneys not discuss the specifics of the talks.

But a news release Friday gave an update on the status of the talks. It was issued by: the Georgia Ports Authority; the corps; the Southeastern Environmental Law Center; and the South Carolina Savannah River Maritime Commission, a South Carolina agency that regulates activity in the river.

"The parties are authorized to make public the fact that progress has been made and settlement discussions are ongoing. Another mediation session is scheduled later this month," the groups said.

Former South Carolina U. S. Rep. John Spratt is overseeing the court-ordered mediation. In an earlier order, Gergel asked all the parties in the lawsuit "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 dredging work to prevent what it called "inappropriate delays" in the project.

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