Senators laud $5M conservation deal for harbor-deepening project

Jim Newsome is chief executive officer of the State Ports Authority.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina senators praised Charleston port officials Wednesday for striking a $5 million deal with environmental groups over the port’s harbor-deepening project, avoiding a potentially expensive lawsuit and delays.

“We would have spent a lot more than $5 million (in court),” said Sen. Hugh Leatherman, the Senate president pro-tempore and a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, told the committee that the deal helped secure key environmental group support for dredging the port to 52 feet from its current 45 feet. The state and federal project is considered vital as Charleston’s port battles for supremacy with other East Coast facilities by making way for larger containerships that require deeper harbors.

The conservation deal allows some of the remaining 15,000 acres of land around the Cooper River to be conserved. The Lowcountry Open Land Trust, the Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center all signed off on the deal, paving the way for dredging to move forward without the threat of a lawsuit from advocacy groups hanging over it.

Newsome also told the committee that the deepening efforts are on track. State officials, however, are waiting to see whether the federal government will pick up the tab for deepening the harbor to its latest recommendation of 52 feet.

The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to lobby Congress to fund a 50-foot depth — the agency’s original recommendation — and the extra 2 feet will come to about $70 million of the entire project’s $509 million price tag. It has not been determined whether the federal government will share in the cost of that additional $70 million.

The state has set aside $300 million for the project, and senators said they don’t want to set aside more if they don’t have to. The federal government is expected to eventually pick up 40 percent of the total but the Legislature and port officials want the project to move forward without delays from Congress.

“It’s a ‘show me the money’ thing,” Newsome said.

Senators expressed concern over deepening projects at the Jasper Ocean Terminal and the Port of Georgetown. It remains unclear whether those projects would be cost-effective and viable, and more study is needed before the state signs off, senators said.

Newsome also told the panel that the port’s business has returned to near pre-recession levels — a faster climb than the industry at large.

Charleston’s port has seen a 52 percent increase between 2009 and 2014, while the 13 other major U.S. container ports have seen an average increase of 25 percent, Newsome said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.