Posted on January 5, 2021
Why scoop when you can vacuum?
The Port of Virginia is continuing its quest to become the deepest port on the East Coast, with the help of a mud-and-sand-suctioning dredge on the Chesapeake Bay.
The Magdalen — named after the grandmother of the dredging company’s owner — is a 356-foot vessel known in the business as a trailing suction hopper dredge. It can be spotted on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel where it’s been working since late November.
Weeks Marine, a New Jersey-based company, had it built about a year and a half ago with a price tag of $120 million. It’s a highly automated ship manned by a 17-person crew who work four weeks on, four weeks off.
It works essentially like this: a long drag arm, weighing in at 100 tons, is slowly extended down about 50 feet to the bay floor where it is pulled along the bottom, suctioning up the silty mud through pipes and into compartments on the ship. Once full, the ship sails out to a dump site off Virginia Beach, the bottom of the compartments are opened and the material is let go.
“Like mowing grass,” Gov. Ralph Northam said on a tour of the Magdalen a couple days before Christmas.
Virginia has put up $78 million to pay for this section of work. Port officials are hopeful federal dollars are on the way to cover future segments of the project.
Northam’s friend and colleague in the legislature, Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, works for Weeks Marine in corporate and government relations. Sickles wanted the governor to see the project up close and Northam, who grew up nearby on the Eastern Shore, said he couldn’t turn down an invite to be out on the water.
“A big part of my job is economic development, and when I talk to businesses that want to grow in Virginia or businesses that want to come to Virginia, the port is just a tremendous asset we have,” Northam said after the tour.
Ever since the Panama Canal was expanded in 2016, allowing for bigger ships to pass through, port cities on the East Coast have been racing to deepen their harbors to accommodate those massive container ships, mainly from Asia.
In Virginia, shipping arteries like the Thimble Shoal Channel leading into the harbor are around 50 feet. It’s not deep or wide enough to allow for two-way ship traffic. That means when ultra large ships arrive or leave, others have to wait for them to pass.
Further south in Charleston, South Carolina, port officials say they are on track to dig down to 52 feet deep by next year, up from 45 feet. But Sickles said Virginia will exceed their depth once this project is complete by 2024.
“We’ll catch up,” Sickles said.
Over the course of the past year, Weeks Marine has been digging up the shipping channel on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. At first it used a clamshell dredge, digging up one scoop of earth at a time.
The company was contracted for just one section of a massive, $350 million project to deepen and widen the port’s shipping channels. Weeks Marine crews have been digging part of the Thimble Shoal Channel down to 56 feet, from 50 feet, which will ultimately mean moving about 5 million cubic yards of material.
The company is almost halfway done and is on track to be finished in August. The project also calls for widening the channel to 1,200 feet.
Bids for the other sections of the dredging project have not yet been awarded.
The port has been sampling and surveying the bay floor on the east side of the bridge-tunnel as well as the inner harbor to submit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Cathie Vick, the Virginia Port Authority’s chief development and government affairs officer. The port expects to put out the bid for dredging the channel’s east side this spring.
Port and state officials are also anxiously waiting to see if the Virginia harbor deepening project will get federal dollars. The House and Senate passed a budget the week of Dec. 20 that was expected to take several days to get to the president for a signature. If the president signs it, a 60-day clock would start for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to publish a work plan, which is how it can get additional funding provided by Congress beyond what was included in the president’s budget request, said Joe Harris, a port spokesman.
This work plan includes what’s known as a new start designation. Only one project in the country will be awarded a new start specifically for navigation projects, meaning Virginia is competing with anyone else going after similar federal dollars. Sickles said Houston has a similar project.
If Virginia is named, the Army Corps would manage the dredging of the inner harbor, Vick said.
The project was authorized as a 50-50 cost share between Virginia and the federal government, and Vick said the $78 million that’s gone to Weeks Marine hasn’t exhausted the state’s share.
A pile of mud, and a mystery anchor
A tour of the Magdalen gets you up close and personal with a lot of mud. The ship can hold about 7,000 cubic yards of Chesapeake Bay bottom — more than 900 dump trucks’ worth — before it has to be dumped at the EPA-approved site off Virginia Beach. For reference, the project total of 5 million cubic yards of material is enough to fill an estimated 654,125 dump trucks.
The project has had to work around the local waterways and local culture. Workers, for instance, had to take a mandated break from Sept. 15 to Nov. 30 because of turtle migration. While dredging, they’ve hit chains and other pieces of material left to sink to the bottom of the bay. In one digging section, a large wrecking ball was discovered.
Sometime during the course of the project, another discovery was made: a large sunken anchor on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Vick said.
Specifics were not readily available. Weeks Marine says it wasn’t them who found it. The port will know more once the anchor is pulled up, likely toward the end of the project.
For now, the mystery will have to wait.
Gordon Rago, 757-446-2601, firstname.lastname@example.org