Graham: Harbor, economy in danger

Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks to the media Wednesday after meeting with State Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern, SPA President and CEO Jim Newsome and other business leaders on securing funding for the deepening of Charleston Harbor.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham stopped by the State Ports Authority office Wednesday morning with a warning: If South Carolina's congressional delegation can't secure money to deepen Charleston Harbor, the result could seriously damage the state's economy.

The state needs $250 million to $300 million to take the shipping channel to 50 feet from 45 feet, making it attractive to mega-ships on order as the Panama Canal expansion moves toward its 2014 completion.

That hefty price tag comes in far cheaper than some competing ports, but South Carolina lags in taking its first steps in the project, namely a $400,000 feasibility study.

"God dealt us a good hand in South Carolina," Graham said, referring to the harbor's natural attributes. But he also cautioned: "If we don't start this year, we fall further behind."

Perennial rival Georgia Ports Authority, for example, intends to spend $800 million to dredge to 48 feet, a depth South Carolina already enjoys when the tides cooperate.

"We're the only state with a port on the East Coast that has no money in the U.S. Senate to deepen our harbor," Graham said.

U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, who joined Graham in Charleston on Wednesday, secured the necessary $400,000 for the study to begin next year. The funding still must receive approval from both houses of Congress. Brown explained that the earmark process, though often stigmatized, provides the only opportunity to get the money in place this year.

The Senate appropriations bill currently includes no such earmark for harbor deepening. Graham pointed to U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint's distaste for earmarks as a stumbling block in the process.

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DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton defended the senator's decision.

Denton said the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees port dredging nationwide, "is drowning in a massive backlog of projects because every year Congress passes hundreds of new earmarks they can't keep up with. Many of these earmarks are wasteful and distract from truly important needs like the study at Charleston Harbor. That's why Senator DeMint has authored and voted for needed Army Corps reforms, to reduce the project backlog, and refocus the agency on critical needs."

Bill Stern, the SPA's chairman, called a missed chance at receiving funding this year the quickest path to Charleston becoming a second-tier port.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or abird@postandcourier.com.