Deepening the Port of Charleston is a key to creating jobs and increasing U.S. exports, local business and political leaders said Tuesday, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the project is unlikely to get done before 2024.
"That's just too long," said State Ports Authority President Jim Newsome.
With an expansion of the Panama Canal to be finished in the summer of 2014, Newsome wants the Port of Charleston to get ready to handle the larger container ships the canal will accommodate. The Charleston shipping channel has a federally authorized depth of 45 feet, and the proposed deepening could take it to 50 feet.
But no federal decision has been made to deepen the port, and it can't be deepened without federal approval and funding. Such a decision would come after a study that is just beginning, and could take five to eight years to complete.
"We are at the very beginning of the feasibility study process, and we do not know what project, if any, we will recommend to Congress," Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne, commander and chief engineer of the Corps' Charleston District, told the crowd at a public meeting Tuesday night.
He said a team of more than 20 people has been assembled for the
study, and the Corps will try to complete the work on the short end of his timeline.
Newsome, though frustrated by the idea of deepening the harbor more than a dozen years from now, said, "We should all be careful not to trivialize the intricacies of this process."
Even the feasibility study faces roadblocks, including the need for federal funding.
"We have not lost any time, up to now, but we need to get funded and need to get in the president's budget for 2013," Newsome said.
Charleston's push for a 50-foot-deep shipping channel comes as the rival Port of Savannah nears the end of a 15-year effort to plan a deepening of the Savannah River, which Georgia and South Carolina share.
The board of South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control, amid great controversy, provided one of the needed approvals for that project last month, and several legal challenges have followed.
The plan to dredge the Savannah River to a depth of 47 or 48 feet would destroy rare freshwater wetlands, threaten the endangered shortnose sturgeon and economically harm South Carolina, opponents of the DHEC action have said.
The Corps' Savannah office is expected to issue a final environmental impact statement early next year.
In Charleston, the public got a firsthand look at the Corps' plans for evaluating the Port of Charleston deepening project at a "scoping" meeting Tuesday night. The meeting was part of a mandatory public comment period on the study that continues until Feb. 10.
Joe Ewalt, who recently retired to James Island from Kentucky, was among those who came to learn about the proposed deepening.
"On the one hand, there's a commonsense element to it," he said. "If ships are getting bigger, the harbor will need to accommodate them. On the other hand, I'm concerned about the environment."
The Corps' studies will look at environmental issues the deepening could raise, such as salt water pushing into area rivers, changes in dissolved oxygen levels in the harbor, and impacts on marshes. The studies also will look at whether the deepening would serve the nation's economic interests.
Earlier Tuesday, port supporters gathered at the Maritime Center to urge speedy approval and funding of the project, and they said there is no port project that makes more sense for the nation.
"This is a very wise, cost-effective investment," said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who said he's discussed the issue with President Barack Obama.
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, called the project "one of the most important civil works projects facing the nation today."
At an estimated $300 million, deepening the Charleston port would cost less than half the price of deepening the Savannah River, and SPA officials including Newsome said that Savannah's project would be inadequate.
"We believe there is a competition for funds and resources, and we'll compete well," Newsome said.
For now, the Charleston project has enough funding for about two years of the study phase. Several million dollars in federal funding are needed in the coming federal budget to assure continuation of the study beyond that, with the SPA and the state and federal governments sharing in the costs of the deepening plan.