The Army Corps of Engineers appears to be getting somewhat frustrated by the lack of direction on the Jasper Ocean Terminal that the South Carolina State Ports Authority and the Georgia Ports Authority plan to build someday.
It's been more than three years since the federal permitting agency held a public meeting announcing the need for an environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the $5 billion terminal to be developed along the north bank of the Savannah River in Jasper County. At the time, the Army Corps expected to finish a draft of the study for public review by the end of 2020.
That's been delayed several times as the Jasper Ocean Terminal Joint Venture Board has revised the timeline for when the 1,500-acre port will be needed. Early in the planning process, which started in 2007, both sides looked at 2025 as a possible opening date. Now, the opening isn't expected until 2035 or 2037.
"I guess to go back to the beginning when we first had a scoping meeting (in January 2017), we were charging forward and saying, 'Hey, we need this thing quicker, we need it sooner, and we're trying to get a draft EIS in the 2020-21 time frame," Nat Ball, project manager for the Army Corps in Charleston, told the board during a meeting last week.
"Now, with some of the new projects coming online, it seems like the starting date has been moved out a little bit, and that's where we need you all's input as far as timing and making sure we're moving forward at a pace that will meet you all's needs," Ball said.
His request was met with several seconds of silence, followed by board chairman David Posek thanking him and stating: "We've got some thought processes to go through here."
No further direction was given and the meeting drew to a close. The board doesn't meet again until June.
The board hired Atkins Global in 2016 to work with the Army Corps to compile data for the draft impact study. To date, Atkins has completed less than one-fifth of the work needed to finish the draft. Most recently, Atkins studied potential impacts the terminal might have on traffic and transportation issues as well as cultural resources.
Among the new projects raising questions about the EIS timeline is the Georgia authority's plan, announced in September, to build a 200-acre container terminal on Savannah's Hutchinson Island that will be able to handle 3 million cargo boxes a year. The $1.8 billion investment will be operational by 2026 or 2027.
Georgia also is expanding capacity at its Garden City Terminal.
All told, the expansions will double the port's capacity to 11 million containers.
That means the Army Corps' Savannah office must now complete a detailed study of how much that new capacity will impact dredging and navigation of the Savannah River and other environmental issues.
It also means Atkins will have to revise the traffic assumptions it recently completed. And the joint venture must prepare a feasibility study for deepening and widening the downstream portion of Savannah Harbor for the Army Corps' review. All of those studies have to be evaluated at the same time and included in the draft EIS.
"We clearly are moving forward with certain studies and getting information that I think has been helpful as far as moving the project forward," Ball said. "I think our underlying concern is when it comes to saying what happens in 2022 and what happens in 2023."
The South Carolina authority is also building the new Leatherman Terminal in North Charleston, with the first of three phases scheduled to open next March. At buildout, that 280-acre terminal will increase the port's container capacity by 50 percent to roughly 3.5 million cargo boxes.
All of that extra capacity has raised questions about exactly when the Jasper terminal — with 10 berths and annual capacity for 7 million cargo boxes — will be needed. About $20 million has been spent on the project, including $800,000 in the current fiscal year — most of that going to Atkins. The South Carolina and Georgia authorities have set aside $3 million apiece for additional work on an as-needed basis.
As last week's meeting wound down, staffs from both sides were directed to study what work and money will be needed for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The joint venture board's next meeting is tentatively scheduled for June 16.