Corps meets with harbor pilots

Engineers are seeking input about dredging the navigation channel from harbor pilots, who guide ships to and from the Port of Charleston. This shows the harbor pilot boat Fort Sumter following a vessel out to sea in 2008.

Brad Nettles

In an effort to speed up a study needed for a $300 million deepening of the Charleston Harbor shipping channel, the Army Corps of Engineers met this week with local harbor pilots for a tabletop exercise on what that study should include.

"It's one of those things we think will allow us to do the study smarter, better and faster," said Brian Williams, the corps project manager for the $20 million deepening study.

State officials want the channel deepened to 50 feet to accommodate the larger container ships that will routinely be calling once the Panama Canal is widened in two years. Corps officials have indicated it could be 2024 before the channel is deepened. State Ports Authority officials and state leaders say that's much too long.

The exercises this week used tabletop maps and geographic information system computer models of the shipping channel. That gave corps staffers a better idea of existing conditions in the harbor and what needs to be studied to make those conditions better to accommodate larger ships, Williams said.

Information about the harbor will then be incorporated in a simulator showing the conditions in Charleston Harbor at the corps' Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss.

By meeting with the harbor pilots now, the number of alternatives that will have to be simulated -- such as harbor depth, channel width, size of turning basins and the like -- can be narrowed, saving time and money, Williams said.

He said it's unusual for the corps to meet with the pilots so early in the process.

"We could have just said we know what we're going to model and we're going to send it to Vicksburg and then have the pilots test it," he said. "We're saving ourselves time and money by weeding things out."

He said it was too early to tell just how many dollars and how much time might be saved.

The State Ports Authority has said that getting the channel deepened is its top priority.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said last month that although there are no more congressional earmarks for projects like the harbor deepening, there's money to continue the study this year thanks to a new $460 million account in a federal appropriations bill.

The corps is taking public comment on what the study should include.

That comment period ends Feb. 10, after which the corps will do a feasibility study and a draft environmental impact statement on the harbor deepening.