GEORGETOWN — Salvation for the Port of Georgetown might start with briquettes of dried, densified wood.
That was the hopeful buzz, at least, when Carolina-Pacific LLC, a South Carolina-based exporter of the renewable energy source, joined the S.C. State Ports Authority Wednesday at the underutilized facility to announce a 20-year contract. The company also plans to occupy 100,000 square feet of warehouse space to make the briquettes, which are described as an environmentally friendly coal substitute.
David Schronce, the SPA's Port of Georgetown director, said he watched the bulk cargo facility grow over the past 25 years to handle 1.7 million tons annually. Then the economy soured, International Paper's nearby mill switched to containerized cargo and the Arcelor Mittal steel-making plant was idled. Annual volume totaled less than 252,000 tons for the first 11 months of the most recent fiscal year.
Following Wednesday's announcement, Schronce said, "For the second time now, we're rebuilding Georgetown."
Carolina-Pacific director Jim Black, a Boston native who donned a Red Sox cap for the occasion, said the company spent two years working on the agreement. Carolina-Pacific plans to launch its operation in October when it will ship 6,000 metric tons to European power company Vattenfall.
Carolina-Pacific plans to export about 66,000 metric tons of product in its first year but intends to grow exponentially from there.
"Twenty years: We're very comfortable there," Black said. "Sooner or later, the U.S. is going to catch up with what's going on offshore."
Carolina-Pacific will employ about a dozen people inside its building, and port officials estimate stevedoring services loading cargo should require another 20 to 25 workers initially.
Though he would not share the anticipated profit numbers, Black said the four machines that produce the briquettes are valued at about $1.6 million.
He said South Carolina currently imports about $14 billion annually in petroleum and $10 billion in coal.
"That's $24 billion coming in, and $24 billion of cash and jobs going the other way," he said. "We will offset some of those imports with exports."
To make it work, though, Black said the railroad connection near the terminal needs repairs. SPA officials said CSX Corp. pledged to make them once the agency had the Carolina-Pacific deal in hand.
The only remaining concern in Georgetown is harbor-deepening. Black said the current depth of 21 feet in certain spots works for 6,000-ton shipments but will not sustain the 25,000-ton shipments expected later.
Paul McClintock, senior vice president and chief commercial officer at the SPA, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the harbor, requires 1 million tons annually in order to justify federal funding to dredge. He said the cargo from Carolina-Pacific and four other potential customers would bring as much as 4 million tons of cargo through Georgetown, which is about 60 miles up the coast from the SPA's Charleston headquarters.
"The wild card with the four other businesses is 27 feet of channel," McClintock said. "With the others it's going to be very difficult to attract this business."
For now, though, port officials celebrate their new customer. Interim SPA chief executive John Hassell thanked the crowd that gathered at the terminal Wednesday and included political, business and maritime leaders from around the state.
"Announcements like this are what keep us going and encourage us that there's a brighter future," he said.