Is More Dredging at Port of Wilmington Worth The Environmental Impact?

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Posted February 11, 2019

WILMINGTON -- A federal official wrote in a letter this week that mitigation efforts the N.C. State Ports Authority has proposed to further widen its turning basin at the Port of Wilmington are "inadequate" and suggested permits should not be issued until they are improved.

"The proposed mitigation for the loss of nursery habitat designated as a (primary nursing area) and (habitat area of particular concern) is inadequate and needs formal evaluation to assess benefits relative to impacts," Virginia M. Fay, a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) assistant regional administrator, wrote in a letter to federal agencies, the N.C. Department of of Environmental Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The ports authority is pursuing state and federal permits to further widen and deepen its turning basin in the Cape Fear River south of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, expanding the basin from a width of 1,400 feet to 1,524 feet by dredging 45 feet down on the east and west sides. To move forward, the project needs a state 401 water quality certification, state Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) approval, and an Army Corps of Engineers permit -- and both federal and state environmental officials have expressed concerns.

Port officials say the effort is necessary to stay competitive with other ports along the East Coast.

Environmental concerns

Complicating matters, though, is the river's status as a primary nursery area, as well as the area around the turning basin's status as a habitat area of particular concern, or an area that is particularly vulnerable to human impacts.

"Our goal is to minimize disruption to the natural environment and the efforts outlined in the application are designed to mitigate any potential effects to wildlife and the environment," ports spokeswoman Bethany Welch wrote in an email. "We work closely with a number of regulators when pursuing projects, like the turning basin expansion, to ensure we are taking the necessary steps to protect natural vegetation, water quality and marine, fish and wildlife resources."

The area is designated as an essential fish habitat because snapper and shrimp use the area for feeding and refuge, while it is a spawning area for fish such as Atlantic sturgeon, shortnose sturgeon and American shad, among others.

Mitigation efforts proposed in conjunction with the project include creating 3 acres of marsh adjacent to Shellbed Island on the lower Cape Fear to make up for the loss of 1.4 acres of tidal wetlands. Further, to make up for the loss of 1.68 acres of shallow bottom, the ports has proposed donating $650,000 to aid with proposed improvements to the fish ladder at Lock and Dam No. 1 in Bladen County.

The NMFS letter questions the appropriateness of both proposed mitigation efforts, saying an analysis is necessary to show the effects of trading the 1.4 acres of tidal wetlands for 3 acres of salt marsh, as well as whether species impacted by the loss of shallow bottom would benefit from the fish passage.

'Maintain competitiveness'

The ports completed the first phase of its turning basin expansion in 2016, expanding the basin from 1,200 to 1,400 feet. In economic reports, the authority has attributed record numbers of containers, in part, to the turning basin expansion and to the pair of cranes already on-site that can work with the larger ships.

An additional expansion is necessary, according to the ports, because a new class of 1,200-foot long ships are already on the water, and the Port of Wilmington could stand to lose customers -- and, therefore, revenue -- if it fails to expand the basin.

"Ships calling the East Coast are getting larger," Welch wrote. "The largest ships able to transit the expanded Panama Canal have already started calling at ports around us. It is imperative that we further expand the turning basin to efficiently accommodate these growing vessels to maintain competitiveness and meet consumer demand."

In addition to widening the turning basin, a third neo-Panamax crane is en route from Shanghai, having traveled 7,229 miles as of Friday afternoon.

The channel expansion also includes the removal of an existing wooden pier and the installation of a 1,416-foot toe wall along the eastern side of the project to protect the shoreline and facilities on the river's eastern shore.

State concerns

Federal agencies are not the only ones with additional question about the Ports Authority's proposed project. Officials with the N.C. Division of Water Resources on Jan. 14 sent the authority a six-page letter with additional questions about the application, including the mitigation efforts and whether the authority considered the project's full impacts.

"The division is concerned that the proposed mitigation plan does not sufficiently demonstrate ecological compensation for the loss of functioning (primary nursing area)," Jeff Poupart, the section chief for water quality permitting wrote.

Poupart's letter raised several questions, including one later echoed in the NMFS letter about how the proposed fish ladder project would compensate for the widening project's impacts; whether the project would move forward if NMFS and the Army Corps of Engineers provided an opinion on its impacts after the 120-day period proposed by the Ports; and whether there are tributaries upstream of the project that could be restored instead of the proposed 3 acres of Shellbed Island marshland.

Additionally, state regulators are asking whether the proposed $650,000 fish ladder improvements fall far short of the value of the area that would be impacted by the turning basin widening. The N.C. Division of Mitigation Services, Poupart wrote, have a fee of $560,000 to purchase on acre of coastal wetland.

"When this rate is applied to the proposed 17.76 acres of (primary nursing area) impact, a figure of $9,945,600 is reached," Poupart wrote. "Since PNAs comprise multiple habitats and species, it could be argued that the price per acre would be considerably higher than the ... coastal marsh fee."

Ports officials have until Feb. 13 to reply to the questions or the application will be returned, necessitating re-application.

The state's CAMA permit review deadline also was extended 75 days, to March 28, 2019, to receive comments from federal agencies such as NMFS who were furloughed during the partial government shutdown.

"However," Courtney Spears, an assistant major permits coordinator in DEQ's Wilmington office wrote, "we expect to take action prior to that time and will do so as soon as possible."

Source: The Virginian Pilot