Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers told attendees of the 40th annual South Carolina International Trade Conference on Monday they should have a preliminary study on deepening Charleston Harbor beyond 45 feet completed next fall.
Jim Newsome, president and chief executive officer of the South Carolina Ports Authority, said “deepening our harbor is our most important strategic priority today,” because by the end of 2015, roughly the time the Panama Canal will have larger locks and be widened, 56 percent of the world's containership capacity will be bigger than what can go through the Panama Canal today.
He said the deepening should be completed by the end of the decade.
This year the port has seen 300 post-Panamax ships call and Newsome said once the canal opens, he expects the size of “work horse” ships calling the U.S. East Coast to be in the 8,000-10,000 TEU range.
Newsome said with four harbors on the East Coast authorized to be deepened to 50 feet - New York/New Jersey, Baltimore, Norfolk and Miami - that measure should be the depth to which Charleston aspires. He noted Charleston serves an exporting region that ships heavy cargo.
“We are fortunate in the region, we have a good balance of imports and exports and we need to keep it that way,” he said.
Today Charleston Harbor has an authorized depth of 45 feet, but larger ships call the port using high tide.
Lt. Col. John Litz, district engineer and commander for the Army Corps' Charleston District, said the agency's study may show 50 feet is the best depth or it may be some other depth.
“The key message here is that this project is on track,” Litz said. "The feasability study, which focuses on the economics, engineering and environmental aspects are within budget and on schedule."
He noted the process of drilling 49 rock core samples from the bottom of the harbor was completed last Friday using the liftboat Capt’n Ray
Brian Williams, project manager for the Army Corps, said the rock found by the agency's drilling was soft limestone, which it has successfully removed in Charleston using cutterhead dredges, not harder rock such as granite.
The Army Corps expects to complete the study by September 2015, when the chief engineer forwards a study to Congress asking for project authorization.
But Williams said by next summer a draft port study and environmental impact study should be ready that will describe the depth and width of channels to which the harbor should be dredged and the size of the turning basins.
Williams said the goal of the study is to get rid of transportation inefficencies due to light-loading of ships and delays moving them.
The study will look at the possibility of deepening the channels to Charleston's Wando and Navy Base terminals to 48, 50 or 52 feet and the channel from the Navy Base to North Charleston to 47 or 48 feet.
Williams noted the study will look at not only whether the project can be built and done so safely, but also what the cost of the project is and its environmental impact from, for example, the intrusion of saltwater further up Charleston's rivers.
Newsome said South Carolina's legislature has authorized the entire estimated $300 million cost of the project so it's not dependent on federal funding.
But he said “Trust me, the taxpayers of South Carolina should not have to pay $120 million to deepen Charleston harbor, it is a meritorious project. We think it is the best project in terms of benefit for the money, so the federal government should do its part in appropriating $120 million.”
Newsome said he believed if the project is authorized and funded by the state, then South Carolina should be refunded the federal share, but it's not clear if that will happen. - Chris Dupin