Exports on rise through Port of Charleston

Jim Newsome

Exported goods are accounting for an increasing share of container shipments through the Port of Charleston and recently drew about even with imports, State Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome said Tuesday.

While the SPA's pier container volume from July through February -- the first eight months of the agency's fiscal year -- was roughly level with the corresponding year-earlier period, Newsome said the port has been attracting new and upgraded shipping services.

He added that he is confident that at least one new service will be announced soon.

A new shipper could boost volume at the port by about 5 percent, he said.

"As we continue to take advantage of our water advantage, exports will continue to grow," Newsome said, referring to the depth of the Charleston Harbor.

The 45-foot-deep shipping channel, which can accommodate ships requiring a 48 feet of water at high tide, is deeper than some rival ports such as Savannah. The port is pressing to have the harbor deepened to 50 feet as ships continue to get longer, wider and heavier.

Imports have been lagging because of the fragile U.S. economy, but exports have been rising with overseas demand, particularly for commodities such as agricultural products, ranging from food crops to timber products.

Charleston's port is now home to three grain transloading operations, where agricultural products are transferred to containers for shipping.

While container traffic has been flat compared to the prior year, the SPA noted that volume for February was more than 9 percent more than the same month a year ago, suggesting that volume is picking up.

Noncontainer traffic, which has experienced strong growth at the port, was up more than 15 percent for the fiscal year, and that "breakbulk" volume last month was double the prior February.

To accommodate one segment of the breakbulk business, the SPA board has agreed to spend up to $2.5 million to support the construction and placement in Charleston of a new barge-mounted "heavy lift" crane.

"A very significant part of our business is this high and heavy cargo," Newsome said at the SPA's monthly board meeting.

Heavy cargo can include large industrial machinery, such as large turbines, and large bulky items such as yachts. Some breakbulk cargo requires no cranes, notably the BMW automobiles made near Spartanburg that are brought to Charleston by rail and driven onto ships for export.

Thanks to BMW, South Carolina exported more automobiles than any other state last year.

The money for a new heavy-lift crane will go to Charleston Heavy Lift, a local company, and will guarantee that the crane remains available to the SPA's terminals, according to SPA spokeswoman Allison Skipper.

Newsome said the crane is needed because an existing crane owned by Charleston Heavy Lift is set to relocate to Savannah at the end of this year.