Wando Welch Terminal

Bigger ships carrying more cargo have the State Ports Authority looking for more cranes at the Port of Charleston's Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. Provided/State Ports Authority

With the third and final wharf at Wando Welch Terminal now back in operation, the State Ports Authority is in the market for some new ship-to-shore cranes.

"We really want to be able to handle three 14,000 (container) ships at one time on that terminal," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the authority that operates the Port of Charleston.

That's something the 36-year-old terminal can't do now, Newsome said, because it doesn't have enough of the 155-foot-tall cranes that move cargo boxes on and off the big container ships while they're docked.

"You need to put a minimum of four cranes on those ships, preferably five," Newsome said. "If we had 15 cranes, we could put three sets of five on the ships."

The authority bought two of the supersized cranes in 2016 from China's Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries, also known as ZPMC, and two more arrived in February. The agency is raising four other cranes that it already owns to 155 feet, and that work will be finished by the first quarter of next year.

Three more cranes are on their way from China, scheduled to arrive in about a year.

That will give Wando Welch a total of 11 big cranes, with Newsome hoping to convince the State Ports Authority's board of directors to spring for more.

"We hope to negotiate a good price with ZPMC which we can bring to our board," he said. "Potentially three or four cranes, depending on the pricing."

That's in addition to 24 new rubber-tired gantry cranes the authority has ordered for the Mount Pleasant terminal that will begin arriving in the first quarter of 2019.

It's all part of a $370 million upgrade that's been under way at Wando Welch for more than three years. Other work includes a new refrigerated cargo yard, traffic improvements, wharf strengthening and a new headquarters building that will open in January.

"We have spent a lot of time on the Wando terminal to bring it up to where it needs to be to handle the big container ships," Newsome said.

Wando Welch is the port's biggest and busiest container hub, handling nearly 1.7 million cargo boxes in fiscal 2017, or 78 percent of the port's total volume.

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Even after the authority's new Leatherman Terminal opens in North Charleston in 2021, Wando Welch promises to be the workhorse for big ships traveling from Asia through the expanded Panama Canal.

Those vessels can carry as many as 14,000 cargo containers, and Newsome thinks more of them are on their way.

Part of his reasoning has to do with new anti-pollution rules set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The regulations slash the amount of sulfur allowed in marine fuel by more than 80 percent. The rule is expected to raise fuel prices and shipowners, already feeling a financial pinch, say it will cost them an extra $15 billion a year.

Newsome said higher fuel costs mean shipping lines will want to send bigger vessels hauling more freight to the East Coast rather than deploy a greater number of smaller less-efficient ships.

Already, 11 of the 16 vessels that make regular weekly calls to Wando Welch carry at least 8,000 containers — with two of them able to handle between 13,000 and 14,000. That number is likely to grow despite pressure President Donald Trump is putting on the International Maritime Organization to delay implementation of the rule.

The organization last week rejected an initial proposal to water down the regulation, but said it might consider additional measures later this year.

"All information we currently have is that there will not be a delay," Newsome said. "We are not hearing the container shipping lines asking for it."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_