The South Carolina Ports Authority hopes the deepening of the Charleston Harbor shipping channel can be completed by the end of the decade, a top agency executive told those gathered Tuesday at a public meeting on the proposed $500 million project.
Dozens of people attended the meeting called by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to gather public comment on a draft environmental impact statement on the deepening released earlier this month.
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The Corps' tentative plan suggests deepening the inner harbor from its current 45 feet to a depth of 52 feet. The entrance channel would be extended and deepened from its current 47 feet to 54 feet. A final decision on a deepening plan is expected next year.
Barbara Melvin, an authority senior vice president, said the project is important because a 52-foot channel will allow Charleston to handle ships capable of the carrying the equivalent of 8,000 20-foot shipping containers at any time and any tide.
"That is the workhorse ship that will be calling on the East Coast after the Panama Canal is widened," she said.
The federal share of deepening the harbor is estimated at $166 million.
But Melvin said the state isn't just asking the federal government to do things for the port. Over the next decade, she said, South Carolina is investing $2 billion in new port infrastructure.
"This project will serve areas beyond our state borders," she added, noting that Charleston serves a wide area of the Southeast and is the nation's 9th-largest container port.
Two years ago, the Obama administration designated Charleston and four other harbor projects as nationally significant and allowed required studies to be expedited.
Brian Williams, the project manager for the Corps who oversaw the study, said that meant the agency used a streamlined, risk-based approach to looking at the harbor project.
"There was a recognition that these studies in the past have taken too long and were too costly," he said.
He said in a harbor like Charleston, which the Corps has maintained for 140 years "maybe you don't need to study everything to the level of detail we have in the past."
The Corps is taking public comments on the draft through Nov. 24 with a final decision on the project expected in September of 2015.
Heather Preston of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said the project needs two state approvals. DHEC will review whether the deepening complies with state water quality regulations and with state rules about development in the coastal counties.