Charleston port project raises business, environmental questions

As officials work on plans to deepen the Charleston, S.C., harbor, environmentalists are questioning whether bigger really is better.

The half-billion-dollar project is not intended to increase traffic to the nation’s fourth busiest container port.

“We are projecting the same types of cargo volumes to come in through the harbor with or without the project,” said Bret Walters, chief of planning and environmental branch of the Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District.

Instead, the purpose is to help the Port of Charleston remain relevant in a business where the ships are getting bigger and bigger, say South Carolina Ports Authority officials.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are trying to figure out whether the project is really worth potential damages to habitats, wetlands, water quality and the fish that populate the harbor.

Deepening the harbor to an average depth of 52 feet – currently it’s 45 feet – also could result in some positive environmental impacts, according to a recent study of the project by the corps. Corps officials said that air quality, for instance, could improve because some of the newer, larger ships have more efficient engines and use cleaner fuels.

Environmentalists are skeptical.

Katie Zimmerman, director of the Air Water and Public Health Program for the Coastal Conservation League, said the group is examining possible issues, like the potential for water contamination from the dredged material and damage to wetlands.

Environmentalists, as they’ve slogged through the hundreds of pages in the corps’ report, have also expressed concerns about the salinity of the water and levels of dissolved oxygen, Zimmerman said.

There are other questions, as well. Charleston would not be getting extra traffic, in part, because other East Coast ports, including Savannah, are undertaking similar projects to lure the bigger ships.

Chris DeScherer, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who is reviewing the harbor project, said these costly projects are probably not necessary for every port.

“Industry experts will generally tell you that in order to accommodate the largest container ships, you only need one deepwater port in the region,” he said, adding that the corps likely “doesn’t want to be in the position of picking winners and losers.”

“One of our overarching concerns has been, and continues to be, that the federal government is unwilling to compare the environmental and economic pluses and minuses with each deepening and pick the place that makes the most sense to have the deepwater port,” DeScherer said.

To minimize damage to the environment from dredging, DeScherer said the corps should evaluate “each port side by side” to determine which ones should be deeper, based on commerce and environmental impact.

Corps officials say that fewer ships entering the harbor could minimize potential environmental damage. Large container ships now have to wait for high tide to come in because of the harbor’s current depth, and that causes greater impact on shoreline, Walters said. It’s either that or lighten their loads and enter at low tide.

The corps is exploring ways to mitigate some of the environmental concerns, like using dredged limestone to construct artificial reefs, said Mark Messersmith, a biologist in the corps’ planning and environmental branch who worked on portions of the study.

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority, said the dredging to deepen the port is necessary because the major container shipping lines use the larger ships. He also said that one part can’t handle all the larger container ships.

“Certainly we feel that there should be a prioritization of projects,” Newsome said. “Some projects have more merit than others.”

Phillip Sanfield, spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles, which completed a dredging project last year, said the city “absolutely” had to deepen its port to stay competitive. The port handles more volume than any other in the U.S.

“The growth has been fast and significant,” Sanfield said of the size of container ships. “And they’re only getting bigger.”