Feds provide update on SC harbor deepening

Lt.Col. Ed Chamberlayne, the District Engineer for the Charleston, S.C., District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, provides an update on the $300 million Charleston Harbor deepening project during a talk on the Isle of Palms, S.C., on Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. Chamberlayne was addressing the annual South Carolina International Trade Conference. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

ISLE OF PALMS, S.C. (AP) — A draft environmental impact study of the planned $300 million deepening of the Charleston Harbor shipping channel is expected in about 18 months, an Army Corps of Engineers official said Monday.

Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne, the district engineer for the Charleston District, told the South Carolina International Trade Conference that the corps has recently awarded nearly $2 million worth of contracts.

Local maritime interests want the harbor channel deepened from 45 feet to 50 feet so that the Port of Charleston can handle the super-size container ships that will routinely call after the Panama Canal is expanded in 2014.

Chamberlayne said the contracts call for studying everything from sediments and marine life to how the deepening could affect wetlands by moving more salt water farther up the harbor.

Teams from Coastal Carolina University will be out next month surveying for cultural and historic resources that may lie on the harbor bottom and would have to be protected in a deepening project. Researchers from the University of South Carolina recently completed the first map of Civil War wrecks and other artifacts in the harbor and Chamberlayne said that will help in the study.

The corps announced this year that expedited studies could mean the project will be completed in 2020, instead of 2024 as originally projected. The Obama Administration has since designated the project as nationally significant, meaning another year could be shaved off the timetable.

Jim Newsome, the president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, said deepening the nation's harbors is important in an era when container ships are getting bigger and bigger.

"We, as a country, have not prioritized this aspect of our infrastructure," he said, adding that researchers predict that by the end of 2015 - the first full year that an expanded Panama Canal is in operation, 52 percent of the world's container fleet will be made up of the larger, so-called post-Panamax vessels.

"The ability to handle these ships is really a game-changer for a port," he said.

"We think we're the best harbor in the Southeast for deepening," he said, noting that the Charleston project is expected to cost $300 million with about $30 million spent to mitigate environmental impacts. Deepening the Savannah River shipping channel to serve Georgia ports is expected to cost $650 million, with about $300 million spent on mitigation.

State Sen. Larry Grooms of Bonneau, the head of the legislative ports oversight committee, said the General Assembly has put aside $300 million for the Charleston deepening.

"It's money that's in the bank," he said. "You can criticize South Carolina government all you want to. But in respect to harbor deepening, we got it right."