Charleston port interests pushing for deeper shipping channel

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began taking public comment Monday on a multiyear study of a $300 million project to deepen the Charleston Harbor shipping channel to 50 feet so Charleston can handle the larger containerships that will routinely be calling after the Panama Canal is widened.

About 100 people turned out for what is called a scoping meeting on what a feasibility study of the project should include. They strolled through a hall at The Citadel where corps workers discussed the project and had displays on the economic, environmental and economic considerations.

“Deepening the Charleston Harbor is our most important strategic priority,” said Jim Newsome, the president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, adding that the state finds itself in competition with other ports for limited federal funds for such projects. “Everyone wants their harbor deepened but not everyone will get their harbor deepened.”

Newsome said during an earlier news conference with business leaders and Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. that Charleston provides the most economical chance for the nation to create a Southeastern port that will handle the next generation of larger container ships already calling as the Panama Canal is widened. He said that Charleston’s project is half the price of a $600 million plan by Georgia to deepen the Savannah River shipping channel to serve the port in Savannah, which is in intense competition with Charleston.

Newsome said it’s key for Charleston to be included on the corps’ work plan for 2012 and then get on the president’s budget on an ongoing basis.

Riley, a Democrat, says he has spoken to President Barack Obama about that.

“My comments to the president have been to reinforce the benefits of deepening the harbor,” the mayor said.

Some South Carolina lawmakers are upset the state’s environmental agency approved a water quality permit for the Savannah River deepening and several groups are appealing the permit through the state’s administrative law court.

Corps spokeswoman Glenn Jefferies said Tuesday’s meeting was the first chance the public has to comment on the Charleston project, although the agency has been taking comment from state and federal agencies for several months.

“We are at the very beginning of the feasibility process,” said Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne, the Charleston district engineer for the corps. He said the entire project could likely be finished about 2024, He noted the corps has been maintaining navigation in the harbor since 1851.

The comment period ends Feb. 10, after which the corps will do a feasibility study and a draft environmental impact statement.


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