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After months of delays, latest Charleston Harbor deepening project gets green light

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A dredging firm from Virginia has been awarded a $124 million contract to dredge from lower Charleston Harbor to Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. File/Provided/SCSPA 

Work on a key part of the Charleston Harbor deepening project, delayed for months by a pair of bid protests, will be performed by Norfolk Dredging Co., the Army Corps of Engineers announced Tuesday.

The $124.5 million job calls for Norfolk Dredging to remove more than 11 million cubic yards of material along a route stretching from the harbor's lower entrance channel to the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant, the Port of Charleston's busiest cargo terminal.

The navigation route will have a 52-foot depth when finished, allowing heavier container ships to visit Wando Welch at any time of day, regardless of tides.

Chesapeake, Va.-based Norfolk Dredging also will expand the terminal's turning basin, making it easier for vessels carrying 14,000 or more containers to maneuver in the river. That area will be widened by about 200 feet to 1,650 feet.

"The turning basin today is something we have to carefully navigate," said Barbara Melvin, chief operating officer for the State Ports Authority. "It's completely doable, but widening the turning basin frees us up from having that small constraint."

Army Corps spokesman Sean McBride said work will begin later this year and should be completed within 36 months.

The latest contract follows work that started in February 2018 to dredge the harbor's entrance channel to 54 feet. Future phases will dredge the Cooper River to 52 feet to a new container terminal the ports authority is building in North Charleston and to 48 feet from that site to the port's North Charleston Terminal.

"The Charleston District team has been working diligently with the South Carolina Ports Authority on this project for the last 10 years and we're proud to see the construction progressing," said Lt. Col. Rachel Honderd, commander of the agency's peninsula office.

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The latest contract was supposed to be awarded earlier this year, but bids came in much higher than the Army Corps had anticipated. The federal agency revised its cost estimate three times and asked bidders to lower their costs, but both sides remained far apart.

Norfolk Dredging, which had submitted the lowest proposal, filed a protest when the Army Corps announced it would forego the bids and negotiate a contract with a single provider. The contract awarded this week is nearly $5 million lower than Norfolk Dredging's initial bid.

Another bidder, Cashman Dredging and Marine Contracting Co., protested the bid process in April, saying the Army Corps failed to provide sufficient geotechnical data or give potential bidders time to conduct test digs at the dredge site. The GAO dismissed that protest last month.

"It's really great that we have moved past the previous protest and we're back on schedule," Melvin of the SPA said, adding the delay "probably won't impact the project's overall schedule."

The entire Charleston Harbor deepening project is expected to cost about $558 million. South Carolina legislators previously set aside $300 million to cover the state’s share of the costs, with the federal government responsible for the rest. President Donald Trump included $138 million for the project in his budget for the coming fiscal year, and the Army Corps has previously contributed nearly $108 million.

The harbor deepening is among more than $2 billion worth of improvements under way at the Port of Charleston, including a new container terminal, refurbishment of the wharf at Wando Welch and taller cranes and other equipment.

The authority, which operates the Port of Charleston, reported a record 1.36 million cargo containers moved through its terminal in fiscal 2019 — a 9.1 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.

Note: This story has been updated with additional information

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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