Deep dive

The Army Corps of Engineers will place of some of the silt and muck to be dredged from Charleston Harbor at the 1,400-acre Clouter Creek disposal site near Daniel Island.

The federal government is, in some ways, much like the shipping industry’s new supersized breed of cargo vessels: large and powerful, but not exactly nimble.

The crew over at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Charleston District is aiming to change that perception with its expeditious work on the Charleston Harbor deepening effort, widely considered one of South Carolina’s most critical public infrastructure projects.

The mammoth $509 million underwater dig hit a big milestone 10 days ago. On June 25, after a nearly four-hour meeting, a senior Army Corps review board in Washington unanimously approved a study that examined the feasibility of taking the Port of Charleston’s main shipping channel to 52 feet from 45.

“We’re pretty proud of the fact that we got this done in such a short period of time,” said Bret Walters, the federal permitting agency’s local planning chief.

Short is a relative term in the business of removing some 7 feet of muck from the bottom of a major, but environmentally sensitive, commercial waterway.

The “Post 45” process officially began about four years ago, in June 2011, and it has broken new ground.

As Walters pointed out, on previous navigation projects of this magnitude, the complicated front-end review would take the Army Corps a decade or longer to complete. Back then, he said, it was simpler to explain the size of the final reports in terms of feet, meaning their width.

The nearly finalized Charleston study, by contrast, is a relative lightweight. It measures about 360 pages in total.

The local dredging project is notable in at least one other way in that it was the first in the nation to fall under the Army Corps’ accelerated planning process for big civil works projects. The streamlining cut the initial study period from as long as 10 years to about four years. The cost of the study also fell to about $11.5 million from the original estimate of $20 million.

“This project will serve as a model for Corps civil works projects around the world,” the agency said in a statement.

Global maritime trends have ports scrambling to give commercial cargo vessels a wider berth. Those with the deepest channels will have a big advantage as heavier but more cost-efficient “megaships” from Asia and elsewhere start calling on the East Coast in greater numbers. More of those larger container carriers are expected to arrive after a big expansion of the Panama Canal is completed next year.

Right now, Charleston can handle vessels carrying about 9,000 20-foot-long containers, depending on the tide. Once deepened, it would be able to accommodate ships loaded with about 10,000 boxes at any time, or as many as 14,000 at high tide.

The State Ports Authority has said that a 50-foot channel will be the minimum standard required to win business on the high-volume East-West trade routes between the United States, Asia and Europe.

After four years of mostly behind-the-scenes analysis, the local dredging project appears to be picking up speed. Less than a week after the study was approved, the Army Corps secured $1.3 million of the $4.5 million needed to complete the early design work. The state is contributing about $2.25 million toward that effort.

This two-year “pre-construction” phase will include visits to a high-tech electronic sea simulator in Mississippi, where local harbor pilots and tugboat crews will experience post-dredging currents and other conditions in a realistic but virtual setting.

“It would be comparable to something Boeing would have,” Walters said.

The Army Corps will use the feedback to refine and possibly even scale back some of the work and the cost, said Brian Williams, project manager for the harbor deepening.

“We’re hoping that through that testing we can actually minimize some of the dredging that has to occur,” Williams said Wednesday.

The next step is a 30-day open comment period that is expected to start July 10. That will allow the public to submit any last-minute questions or concerns to the Army Corps’ brass in Washington.

“Any work that needs to be done they’ll ask us to do,” Walters said.

Once that’s completed, the report will be shipped off to Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Army Corps’ chief of engineers, who’s expected to sign it in September. Then the Assistant Secretary of the Army and the Office of Management and Budget will conduct their own reviews.

The last stop is Congress, which will be asked to fund the Charleston project based on a condensed version of the 360-page Army Corps study. The federal government is responsible for picking up $166 million of the dredging bill.

No one is willing to guess when the money will be allocated.

“We lose control of the schedule at this point,” Walters said. “So it really depends on Congress and how fast they act.”

It can’t come soon enough for the ports authority. It hopes to have the deepening completed by the end of the decade.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.