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Economy: Port panel will press for state funds

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

After years trapped in a vortex of diminishing cargo at its docks and accumulating silt in its channel, the port of Georgetown is poised to break free with the help of state funds. But a local task force needs to move fast to get the Army Corps of Engineers to accept state funds for dredging, says state Sen. Yancey McGill.

The task force that was formed by the Georgetown County legislative delegation met for the first time this week, and targeted officials at the corps’ Charleston District office as the ones they need to move the process forward. The 15-mile channel through Winyah Bay from the Atlantic Ocean to Georgetown was created by the corps in 1949, and was maintained at a depth of 27 feet with federal funds.

But the last maintenance dredging was in 2005. As cargo into the port declined, the port fell off the funding list. With sections of the channel now under 20 feet in depth, some cargo ships can no longer use the port. The ArcelorMittal steel mill in Georgetown, which reopened in January after an 18-month closure, now brings its raw materials through Wilmington, N.C.

With cargoes of 25,000 to 30,000 tons, the steel mill needs a 27-foot channel, said Edwin Jayroe, a harbor pilot. “We’re not attracting anything,” he said. “We’ve got to get this dredging done.”

Georgetown handled over a million tons of cargo a year until 2003. It handled 124,000 tons last year.

At a million tons, the port would return to the list of projects eligible for ongoing maintenance. The State Ports Authority projects the port will handle 600,000 tons this year, said Dave Posek, a member of the state ports commission.

Restoring the channel to its 27-foot depth is estimated to cost $33.5 million. The dredging can’t be done in a single project because the volume of spoils exceeds the capacity of the existing disposal sites.

Jim Newsome, president of the ports authority, has proposed a three-year project, starting with $5.5 million to dredge the Georgetown harbor entrance at the Sampit River and two $14 million projects in subsequent years to address the shipping channel and the Winyah Bay entrance.

McGill, who is one of 10 members of the task force, said he has met with leaders in the General Assembly and is confident the port dredging can get funds.

But he said the key will be finding local funds for ongoing maintenance. The corps estimates that at $4 million to $5 million a year, but Posek told the task force he believes that is high because Charleston’s annual maintenance is $9 million.

“We have to show the possibility of getting volume,” Posek said. “We don’t want to be funding the maintenance dredging in perpetuity.”

Even a phased dredging would help boost traffic, Jayroe told the task force. “It’s bad, but it’s not dire straits,” he said. A 24-foot channel would be an improvement.

That’s something the Corps of Engineers hasn’t considered, said Tim Tilley, who chairs the task force. He wants to set up a meeting with the agency’s Charleston District in the next couple of weeks.

When that happens, it’s important that it take place in Georgetown, McGill said. “Let’s get them on our turf,” he said. “We don’t want to go down there.”

“I don’t think we want to put them on the spot,” Tilley said.

McGill said there are “big time” people who want to see the task force succeed, and he thinks it’s important that the corps understands that.

Posek, who lives at Heritage Plantation, said the ports authority supports the effort, and it hired someone to help sell Georgetown to firms that transport bulk cargo, the kind that the port handles.

He also said Wilmington is preparing a similar funding agreement with the corps.

“We’re at a crossroads,” McGill said. “If we don’t move quick … .”

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