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Port: Corps makes dredging plans without federal funds

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers say dredging Georgetown Harbor needs to include a long-range plan to maintain the channel’s depth and to identify new customers’ needs or the county, state and State Ports Authority will be throwing away millions of dollars. And those will be local dollars because there are no federal funds yet for the project.

“In the past when we’ve had this conversation with the folks in Georgetown, the strategy has been 27 feet, the whole depth, the whole project. We’re just going to build it back, and everything’s going to be great, said Brandan Scully, chief of navigation for the Corps of Engineers’ Charleston District. “I don’t think that’s a viable strategy.”

Scully said he wants to encourage Georgetown port officials to avoid a path that is unrealistic and unsustainable. He said the only real traffic at the port is cargo going to the State Ports Authority property along with some bulk concrete aggregate going by barge to Rhode Island.

“As far as we’re concerned,” Scully said, “the best thing that Georgetown can do is to make sure that they can accommodate those. Let’s say we build Georgetown back in the next three years to its full project depth. Georgetown has a history of not performing. I don’t think anybody is going to rush to set up in Georgetown. We want to make sure that what’s there now is viable. That’s the best way for Georgetown to row their project back to true viability.”

The Corps wants to work with port and county officials to develop a sustainable plan that includes expanded disposal sites with a budget to continue maintenance dredging.

“I need to make sure that if I’m dredging at all I’m making a difference,” Scully said. “I can dredge the inner harbor in Georgetown in front of the steel mill, but nobody uses the steel mill channel right now. That’s like a million yards of material. So if I move all that stuff right now, and I put it in a disposal area, I’m going to shut down. Even if I expanded the disposal area first, if I move that material and put it into the disposal area and nobody used the channel I just dredged, it’s like taking Georgetown’s money and throwing it into the trash. I don’t want to do that.”

Georgetown County voters just approved an additional one-cent sales tax for four years with a top priority of contributing $6 million to the port dredging’s estimated tab of $33 million. Former state Sen. Yancy McGill told members of a port task force that the state has promised to budget $18 million to dredge Georgetown’s port. The State Port Authority has pledged $5 million with the remainder to come from the federal government after U.S. Rep. Tom Rice helped get small ports consideration for dredging by changing the funding rules.

Rice met with members of the Corps of Engineers Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to continue talks about funds for Georgetown. He said a decision was due soon.

Project manager David Warren said the Corps has no money in its fiscal year 2015 budget for Georgetown. “Every budget is fungible,” he said, “but right now in the president’s budget there is no money.”

That does not preclude the Corps from starting work. A funding agreement allows a sponsor to provide funds for a project without a congressional appropriation, Scully said.

“We have a general strategy, but the details are not fleshed out,” he said. “What I can tell you is that the estimates I’ve been reading in the paper are outdated. Previously, we had a three-year plan that was $33 million. I think that has gotten longer. I think the cost has gone up, but I don’t know how much. When we figured it out, that didn’t account for the two years of maintenance.”

And maintenance is a critical factor. “What the people of Georgetown need to understand is that after it’s up and functioning we can’t stop putting money into the system,” Scully said.

“Our old estimate was that we needed to come up with a pipeline of $6 million a year to keep it maintained. That doesn’t include the cost of acquiring new disposal area footprints, acquiring land. It doesn’t account for changes in strategies like taking material further up the harbor offshore, which is going to cost more,” he said. “If you don’t show me that you’ve got a plan for $6 million a year after getting it up and running, you might as well not do anything.”

Warren said the county’s economic development plans should drive decisions about how the money is spent on the harbor. “I don’t know what market these people are going after,” he said. “That’s really going to drive how the money is spent. If I had infinite money that could bring the port back to 27 feet, which is the project depth, that’s one market. If you don’t have infinite money, looking at your current customers and the customers you want, that’s your market. We’re going to provide them with various options. They can pick and choose from those options or say, ‘Here’s how we really wanted to spend the money.’ In this case, it’s their money so what we’re going to do, based on our expertise, is make our recommendation for the best way to spend the money. Are you chasing the cement guys who only draw 10 feet? Are you chasing the break-bulk guy who needs 25 feet? What’s your market?”

The first thing that needs attention, according to Scully, is preparation of a spoils site. The previous offshore disposal area for material dredge from the lower end of Winyah Bay is inactive and would require environmental testing for up to a year before dredge material could be dumped there. The disposal sites between the Waccamaw River and Pee Dee rivers at Hobcaw Point and a second site off the Sampit River near International Paper will require repair and expansion.

“It’s a couple million dollars of moving dirt and repairing some dikes, some spillways, a culvert on a stream crossing,” Scully said. “There’s very limited capacity in Georgetown, and that’s been recognized for a very long time. If we started dredging right now we would be done in a year, and that would be it. We would not be dredging in Georgetown until we found new disposal areas.”

Maintenance dredging will be required whether the port reaches its full freight potential or not. Increased traffic might give it a chance of getting federal maintenance funds, but that isn’t guaranteed. “A million tons, that’s the number,” Scully said. “You basically get put on the list to compete. All of our projects in the Corps of Engineers in the Southeast, there’s one pot of money and we all compete. There are factors that go into it like your tonnage. For instance, Charleston is a strategic port; Georgetown is not a strategic port. There are all these factors that go into making you competitive.

“What is the O&M commitment of the state and the county? It’s like the Charleston harbor. I can spend anywhere from $10 to $15 million a year just on maintenance dredging. That’s not digging anything new. Georgetown is going to have a number too. It used to be $2 to $4 million. Now it’s probably going to be in the $5 to $6 million range in the future. Somebody’s going to have to start picking up the tab for that once we get the project going.”

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