Friday, November 16, 2012
Having seen the one-cent sales tax referendum turned down by voters, the Georgetown Port Task Force is reviewing proposals for a midstream anchorage system as an interim step toward its longer-term goal of dredging the shipping channel to 27 feet.
The Task Force, formed for the purpose of finding $33.5 million in funds for dredging for the Port of Georgetown, met last week with representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Chairman Tim Tilley said a midstream mooring facility in lower Winyah Bay could provide up to 200,000 shipped tons toward meeting the goal of one million tons per year – a minimum requirement for federal funding.
“Dredging has been inhibited from happening over the past decade and hasn’t been done,” Tilley said. “Unfortunately the larger ports over the country have gotten the funds instead of the smaller ports, which actually are the ones that need this money.”
Others pointed out the minimum tonnage requirements have not been met because of the ups and downs of the steel industry in Georgetown.
“The focus of today’s meeting was to take a look at the loss of the referendum, which would have given us $5.5 million toward the cost of the first year of a three-year dredging proposal,” Tilley said. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was at our meeting to explain their recent evaluation of river depths, which have degraded at the mouth of the Sampit River where it meets the Winyah Bay.”
A tug boat recently had to free a barge that ran aground where the Sampit River goes into the upper part of the Georgetown harbor. Traveling from Holcim Cement, the cement cargo was headed for a 1,000-mile trip to New England. Water depth was estimated to be about 16 to 17 feet at the point just off Morgan Park in Georgetown, because a low tide helped make the channel below the normal 19-foot depth.
Brad Stroble, sales and marketing manager, bulk, break-bulk and project cargo for State Ports Authority, said the mooring of ships has potential. Non-containerized, break-bulk general cargo – individually loaded goods – has doubled over last year at the Port of Georgetown. Volume for the 2011-12 fiscal year was 548,919 tons. The previous year it was 276,570 tons.
Tilley said a mid-stream anchorage facility could be put in place once Corps permits are obtained.
“We’d also have to make sure S.C. Department of Natural Resources requirements are met. By anchoring ships mid-stream on a mooring buoy at the lower part of Winyah Bay, we could have more tonnage coming into the Port of Georgetown much sooner.”
There have been two projects proposed by private entities for the same Winyah Bay area, but only one, Coastal Terminals, LLC, of Charleston has filed an application with the Army Corps of Engineers and the SC Department of Natural Resources.
The company’s application said the midstream anchorage transfer facility would be made up of buoys chained to large concrete slabs to anchor ships, which are too large to reach Georgetown’s port dock. Smaller barges or tug boats will then bring the shipments upstream to land.
Tommy Fennel, chief of the Corps of Engineers branch in Conway, said Coastal Terminals permit application has gone through the 30-day comment period of the permitting process and is awaiting response from DNR and other public entities.
Some meeting attendees expressed concern about the in-stream mooring affecting “riparian rights,” which could involve a property owner’s unrestricted use and access to their river bank and/or waterway.
Bob Perry, DNR environmental program director, said the proposed anchorage mooring system would be about 200 feet from lands of former Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who established the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Preserve for North and South Islands, which includes the historic Georgetown Lighthouse acreage.
This wilderness area from North Inlet to Capers Island is under state control. Yawkey left the state this wilderness area, along with an endowment to manage it. Perry said the Yawkey Foundation will be contacted as part of any permit reviews.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be reviewing a possible night-time use of the facility, which would require lighting. Some advocacy groups say such activity could be harmful to sea turtle nesting and could pose a threat to manatees, which are present in the bay in the summer.
The proposed transfer facility is to be in front of the lighthouse, which is a historic landmark. Those attending the meeting seemed to agree permit review considerations would have to be given to this sea turtle nesting and the possible affect on waterway navigation.
Lisa Metheney, the Corps assistant chief for projects, confirmed three years or more would be required to dredge the channel to 27 feet. Yearly cost for channel maintenance after dredging could cost an estimated $4 million to $5 million, including upkeep of the dredging material disposal site.
Sen. Yancey McGill said he wanted to make sure everyone understood the Task Force is not deciding against dredging by reviewing the proposals for mid-stream anchorage. He said more than $17 million should be available from the state and wanted to establish a delegation to speak about federal funding with Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Tim Scott in Washington, D.C.
Byron Miller, vice president of marketing for the State Ports Authority, said his organization believes the venture would benefit the Port of Georgetown.
“Shipping through Georgetown increased from 277,000 tons to nearly 600,000 in the past year,” he said.
County Council members are hoping dredging can go forward if they can shift the capital improvement plan priorities, and former member of the State Ports Authority board and Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville said dredging could provide many new jobs for county residents.
The Task Force learned that cost of a steel-drum buoy anchoring system is not as expensive as dredging, and has a permitting process that could take about 12 months or more. Ships would pay a docking fee to the private operator and these monies should cover permit costs.
The Port of Georgetown Propeller Club, a professional organization dedicated to promoting the maritime community, announced this summer its support of a midstream anchorage transfer.
The Club cited a recent economic impact study for the Port of Georgetown by Coastal Carolina University, which made estimates that every increase in 500,000 tons of shipping would have an economic impact of $4.4 million and would provide an estimated 42 jobs in the community.
By Lloyd Mackall
For The Times
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