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Port dredging: State drops a 0 from funding, but county stays upbeat

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“I assumed that it was a typo, that a zero was missing,” County Administrator Sel Hemingway said.

State legislators say it was no mistake that caused funds for dredging the Georgetown port to go from $2.5 million to $250,000 in this year’s budget.

The sales tax in Georgetown County went up by a penny this year to fund a package of capital improvements led by dredging to restore the depth of the shipping channel through Winyah Bay to 27 feet in order to attract new industry. The state committed to fund $18 million of what was estimated to be a $33 million project. Georgetown County will pay $6 million and the State Ports Authority will pay $5 million. The state will look to the federal government to fund the remaining $4 million.

But the cost of dredging was revised to $66 million in a presentation to the Senate Transportation Committee in January. It’s since gone up, said Sen. Ray Cleary, who serves on the committee.

“And they were worried about the $5 million annual maintenance cost” once the depth is restored, Cleary added.

But the Senate had $2.5 million for the port in its budget. The money was in the capital reserve fund.

The House had $250,000 for the port in the general appropriations budget. A conference committee met to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill last month.

During that process, both Cleary and state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch checked in with the conferees to make sure the port was still funded. They were told it was.

The reason it wound up at $250,000 rather than $2.5 million or some number in between, Cleary explained, was that the conferees were forced to choose between the House and Senate amounts. No compromise was possible because the money was in different portions of the budget, he said.

“They used the House version instead of the Senate version,” Cleary said. “I was told it had something to do with the steel mill.”

ArcelorMittal announced in May that it will close its mill in Georgetown in September. The mill doesn’t ship through the port, but local officials hoped to get that business back once the port is dredged. That volume of cargo would have helped the port compete for federal funds for ongoing maintenance dredging.

“The steel mill brings another working part into the equation,” Hemingway said. “We have to reassess.”

But he hadn’t heard that the state was going to do anything other than honor its commitment to fund a portion of the dredging. And he’s confident it will.

Goldfinch pointed out that $2.6 million appropriated for the port in last year’s budget is still available. The $250,000 adds to that. “Even if there’s $1 on there, it’s still a commitment that we’re going to fund it,” he said. “There’s nothing extraordinary going on.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is working on alternative plans, including different depths for the channel and different means of disposing of the spoils. That work is being done with federal funds, Hemingway said.

The key element may be disposal. The plan is now to place spoils in upland impoundments that need to be expanded. The Corps is doing studies to determine if it could dump the spoils offshore, Hemingway said.

He expects to hear from the Corps next month.

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