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Port of Georgetown: As dredging costs rise, lawmakers fight for funds

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

State lawmakers are optimistic funds for dredging the Port of Georgetown will emerge when a conference committee completes work on the state budget this week. But Sen. Ray Cleary believes that a revised estimate from the Army Corps of Engineers of the project’s cost puts the dredging in doubt.

“Don’t shoot the messenger,” he said. “I don’t think the port is ever going to be dredged.”

A spokesman for the Charleston District office of the Corps of Engineers said they are still working with Georgetown County on different options for deepening the channel. He said the agency won’t discuss the costs.

The port received $2.6 million in the state budget last year as Georgetown County prepared to put a referendum on a 1-cent capital improvement sales tax before voters.

The referendum passed in November and the extra penny was added to purchases last month. It will raise $6 million for port dredging over four years.

The cost of dredging the harbor and the channel through Winyah Bay to its authorized depth of 27 feet had been estimated at $33 million. Along with the county funds, the state pledged $18 million, the State Ports Authority pledged $5 million and the federal government was expected to contribute the remaining $4 million.

Gov. Nikki Haley included $2.6 million for the project in her budget for the State Ports Authority this year. It was removed as the budget moved through the House and Senate.

“It’s in the capital reserve fund. That’s what’s being filibustered right now,” Cleary said Wednesday.

Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort has led the filibuster in opposition to a proposed increase in the gasoline tax to fund road projects.

But Cleary said he was told in January that the Corps of Engineers had revised the cost estimate to $66 million. “We had trouble finding $33 million,” he said. “That would be close to impossible.”

In addition, he said the corps told local officials that the cargo volume needed to make the Georgetown port eligible for ongoing maintenance dredging is expected to increase from 1 million tons a year to 1.5 or 2 million tons. “The state doesn’t want to spend $2 million a year to maintain the port,” Cleary said.

On top of that, the announcement last month that ArcellorMittal will close its steel mill in Georgetown made it doubtful the cargo volume could reach the level to be considered for federal maintenance funds, he said.

The steel mill doesn’t ship material through Georgetown. It comes through Wilmington, N.C. ArcellorMittal was asked if it would contribute half the estimated $1 million annual savings it would realize from shipping through a dredged Georgetown port to help fund ongoing maintenance.

“They said, No,” Cleary said. The firm didn’t want to set a precedent.

The Corps of Engineers has said that ongoing maintenance needs to be considered as part of any project. That’s still the case, said Sean McBride, a spokesman for the Charleston District.

“We are still working with the county on the various options for what they can do,” he said. “Each of the options has a different cost.”

Until the options are completed, the corps won’t release the costs, he said.

McBride acknowledged that the $33 million was based on an estimate that was outdated. As to whether the estimate for that work would now be $66 million, “I can’t comment,” he said.

“We are looking at what will work within the parameters of what they have now,” McBride added.

County Administrator Sel Hemingway said last week he was confident the state funds would remain in the budget. Cleary checked and said they were still there Wednesday.

State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch said Wednesday he spoke with conference committee members and was also assured the money was there.

Although he hasn’t seen actual figures, Goldfinch said he also heard the dredging cost was 30 to 50 percent higher than the corps’ original estimates. “It’s all been anecdotal,” he said. “Hopefully, we overestimated enough that we can get it done.”

Goldfinch doesn’t believe the steel mill closing will hurt the port dredging project. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes with the steel mill,” he said. “I think we’re going to see some real progress in Georgetown once the steel mill goes away.”

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