Wilmington port’s effort to be competitive may come at the wrong cost

A cargo ship departs the North Carolina Port of Wilmington. Photo: State Ports Authority

Posted on January 18, 2022

WILMINGTON — The Port of Wilmington can handle the largest container ships that call on the East Coast, but only if those ships aren’t full.

That’s because the shipping channel in the Cape Fear River is not deep enough. The channel, which runs 26 miles from the docks to the ocean, is 42 feet deep at the lowest low tide.

It would need to be 47 feet deep to handle many of the fully-loaded ships that now call on East Coast ports, says Brian Clark, the executive director of the N.C. State Ports Authority.

So the state has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel and widen and straighten it in spots, and that has lots of people concerned about how the dredging work and the bigger channel would affect the environment and property along the river.

Clark says the project would enable the Port of Wilmington to keep up with other East Coast ports, several of which are also deepening their channels to accommodate big fully-loaded ships from Asia.

“It’s a big piece for us to remain competitive,” Clark said.

The state has spent $265 million upgrading its ports, including new cranes and a bigger turning basin to accommodate larger ships at Wilmington. But as at most East Coast ports, those ships arrive and leave less than full, because the channels aren’t deep enough.

That has set off a wave of planned or recently completed dredging projects. Among the first was at the East Coast’s busiest port in New York and New Jersey, where the Army Corps of Engineers spent about $2 billion deepening the channels to 50 feet in 2016.

The Corps is nearly finished deepening the channel at Georgia’s Port of Savannah from 42 to 47 feet and is expected to finish dredging the channel in Charleston to 52 feet this year. Dredging work has also begun on the channel in Virginia’s Norfolk port which would make it the deepest on the East Coast — 55 feet — by 2024.

Congress authorized deepening the Cape Fear River channel late last year, at a total cost of $834 million. The decision was based on a feasibility study commissioned by the N.C. State Ports Authority.

But the Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project has other hurdles to cross and is still years away from getting started. Congressional approval is conditional on the Army Corps of Engineers completing economic and environmental studies, which will provide opportunities for the public to comment.

A draft of the port’s feasibility study, done under the auspices of the Corps, drew about 100 comments from the public, most critical. People said the report failed to adequately address the project’s potential impacts on marshes, wildlife and water quality as well as beaches and shoreline, particularly along Bald Head Island near the river’s mouth. Several urged the Corps to require mitigation measures and to assess more deeply whether the project is needed at all.

Public hearings on the Corps’ environmental impact report have not yet been scheduled.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers showed their support for the Wilmington project by putting up North Carolina’s share of the money. The budget signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper in November put $284 million into a reserve account for the work if and when the federal government approves.

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