Posted on March 21, 2017
By Lawrence Specker, AL.com
The concerns were close to the surface Thursday evening as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public meeting in Daphne on a study that could lead to enlargement of the Mobile Ship Channel.
The worries weren’t aired in the style of a town hall meeting in the Bayfront Park pavilion. It wasn’t that kind of meeting. Instead it was an open house pitched as “an opportunity for the public to obtain information about the ongoing study of the Mobile Harbor Channel, speak with subject matter experts and ask questions about the project.”
It also was a chance for the public to receive repeated assurances: that the outcome of the study wasn’t a foregone conclusion, that the process was complex in part because it the Corps was trying to be as transparent as possible, that public input was considered not only welcome but essential, that the Corps’ final recommendation would carefully consider potential harm to the environment and ecosystems of Mobile Bay.
The process began in 2014, when the Alabama State Port Authority asked the Corps to consider the project. That initiated a four-year, $7.8 million study, which the Corps’ Mobile District Commander, Col. James DeLapp, said should be completed in late 2019.
The motivation to enlarge the channel is straightforward: “The ships are getting bigger,” said Port Authority Director Jimmy Lyons, and consequently the port is facing “congestion issues and capacity issues.”
Global developments such as improvements to the Panama Canal mean that ever-bigger container ships are plying the seas, bound for Mobile and competing U.S. ports. The biggest ones can’t come up the Mobile channel fully loaded, because it’s not deep enough, or pass each other on the way in and out, because it’s not wide enough.
Improving the channel to better serve those ships wouldn’t bring a direct windfall to the port, Lyons said. But it would bolster the area’s ability to serve and attract developments such as the new Walmart distribution center being built west of Mobile.
But some fear that the existing channel, and the dredge spoil from its creation and maintenance, already has hurt the ecology of the bay. Avery Bates, Vice President of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama, was part of a group who’d set up shop in the parking lot outside the Corps’ open house, to make sure they got a chance to share their viewpoint with interested members of the public.
Bates said that while most people don’t see it that way, the bay is “farming land” to shrimpers, crabbers and fishermen.
“We know it’s going to be devastating to the bay,” he said of spoil from work to expand the channel. “The damage here is going to be magnified.”
“We’re not so much against digging the channel, but it’s what it’s going to do to these people,” he said, gesturing to some of the seafood industry workers on hand. “This is something crucial to people trying to keep their way of life.”
On another front, some say the existing channel contributes to erosion of Dauphin Island and that a wider, deeper channel would do even more harm to the fragile barrier island – especially if the Corps doesn’t commit to depositing dredged sand where it can replenish the shoreline.
The problem there is that the Mobile Ship Channel acts like a knife that slices through the natural beach-building processes of the Alabama coast. Imagine a river made of sand instead of water. This river flows parallel to the beach, driven by the constant motion of the waves, carrying sand “downdrift” – think downstream, as on a river – as it goes.
Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier was on hand, and said a number of other islanders were among the dozens of people who turned out for the meeting.
“I don’t know how much good it’ll do us, but we’re here,” Collier said. “I’ve been dealing with this stuff for two decades, and it’s frustrating.”
Collier submitted a letter focusing on the issue of dredged sand, saying that an alternate disposal site would address a “longstanding inadequacy” in channel management and would give Dauphin Island “the quality and quantity of sand it needs to insure long-term sustainability.”
Both in the letter and speaking in person, Collier argued for a common-sense approach. “I just can’t believe we just can’t find a way to do what’s right,” he said.
Col. DeLapp said the study process “absolutely” was weighing impacts such as those feared by Bates and Collier. “We’re going to look at alternatives,” he said.
The goal of the study process is to come up with a recommendation for the best way to proceed with the channel enlargement, Col. DeLapp said. Ideally, it’ll be an approach that minimizes harm while making the most efficient use of the money spent on the project.
Even when the study is finished in 2019, “It does not mean the work will start at that point,” DeLapp said. The political question of whether to proceed and the economic question of how to fund the project will remain.
The channel currently has a nominal depth of 45 feet and a width of 400 feet for most of its run, widening as it opens into the Gulf of Mexico. While dimensions of the planned enlargement haven’t been finalized, it likely would be increased to 55-foot depth and 550 feet or more in width.
The work would end about a mile downstream of the Wallace and Bankhead tunnels, which limit depth to about 40 feet where they cross the Mobile River. That would be far enough for big ships to reach three terminals designed to handle containers, coal and steel, Lyons said.
A Corps spokeswoman said the next public meeting likely will be held later this year, as the study process continues to advance through a series of milestones. For more information, including downloadable reports, visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mobile District website and click on “Mobile Harbor General Reevaluation Report.”
Members of the public may submit comments by email to MobileHarborGRR@usace.army.mil or by mail to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District, 109 Saint Joseph Street, Mobile AL 36602.