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Environment: Winyah Bay barge facility raises questions

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Environmental organizations say more information is needed to assess the impact of a private barge terminal proposed for the lower end of Winyah Bay. But the State Ports Authority says it thinks the venture would benefit the Port of Georgetown.

Coastal Terminals LLC applied last month for state and federal permits to place 16 mooring buoys along more than a mile of the shipping channel inside the Winyah Bay entrance. The project, which is proposed by Maybank Industries, a terminal operator in Charleston, will also allowocean-going ships to load and unload cargo from barges.

Silt in the channel through Winyah Bay and at the Sampit River entrance to the port limits access to the state-owned terminal. Local and state officials have been working for a year to find money to fund dredging because the cargo volume is too low to qualify for federal funds.

“You could look at this like a stop-gap,” said Allison Skipper, a spokeswoman for the ports authority. “This is a way to work around the dredging.”

The ports authority initially asked state and federal regulators for more time to review the project, but said it got the information it needed from Maybank Industries.

Questions about the project were referred to Turner Fabian, president of Maybank’s bulk transfer facility in Charleston. He is out of town and could not be reached.

Maybank operates a similar transfer facility in the Cooper River in Charleston.

Although Maybank competes with the ports authority for customers, the authority believes “a midstream operation could be another avenue to grow cargo at the Port of Georgetown,” Skipper said.

For the 11 months through the end of May, cargo volume at the port was 493,532 tons, an increase of 113 percent from the same period the year before, she said.

Maybank said in its application it plans to focus on biomass cargo for the Winyah Bay facility.

Wendy Allen, manager of the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, told regulators the reserve would like to know more about the cargo. “There is always some possibility for spillage,” she said.

That concern was also cited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It recommended the facility be limited to non-toxic cargo, and that transfers be prohibited during times of high winds and waves.

The Coastal Conservation League asked regulators to require a mitigation plan for spills.

All the organizations asked for additional information, and the conservation league asked for a public hearing.

Skipper said the Port of Georgetown already handles biomass in the form of wood pellets.

J.C. Witherspoon, who owns a wood products company in the Clarendon County town of Alcolu, told regulators there is great potential for the project. “We have identified sizeable, long-term opportunities for export growth, but are handicapped by the much higher costs and increased carbon footprint of trucking our products to Charleston or Savannah,” he said.

The transfer facility will boost port traffic “without placing significant additional stress on the Winyah Bay waterway or the surrounding environment,” Witherspoon said.

Allen said more information is needed to know what environmental impact the facility will have. She asked for a survey of plants and animals along the bottom of the bay at the proposed mooring site and for information about how the moorings themselves could alter the profile of the bottom.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said the facility could pose a threat to manatees, which are present in the bay in the summer. The potential use of the facility at night would require lighting that the agency and environmental groups say could be harmful to sea turtle nesting on the undeveloped North Island.

They also point out that the proposed transfer facility is directly in front of the historic Georgetown lighthouse and could block access.

Regulators say they are continuing to review the Coastal Terminals application.

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