A big project to deepen the Port of Wilmington’s navigational channel is closer to environmental studies now that N.C. Ports has agreed to fund part of that work.
N.C. Ports Executive Director Brian Clark on Monday signed a “Letter of Intent” to cover the ports’ share of costs for studies on its Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project
with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, port officials said this week.
Now, the Army Corps is able to seek federal funding to do the studies.
It’s the next step in the process to get the project moving forward, following federal legislation late last year that authorized the channel deepening project in a long list of projects under the Water Resources and Development Act of 2020.
“The letter of intent is an important next step in the process,” Laura Blair, spokeswoman for N.C. Ports, said in an email. “The [Ports] Authority will serve as the non-federal sponsor for this phase of the project.
“When completed, the Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project will allow deep-draft vessels to efficiently navigate to the Port of Wilmington,” Blair added. “A more efficient channel would modernize the Port, attract more import and export business, help mitigate East Coast congestion, and help North Carolina Ports become an even stronger player in this competitive landscape, thereby supporting the economies of Wilmington, New Hanover County, eastern North Carolina and the entire state.”
Officials have estimated the project, which has been discussed for several years now, will cost $834 million.
The navigational improvement project aims to deepen the Wilmington Harbor channel leading to the Port of Wilmington from 42 feet to 47 feet to support the larger commercial cargo vessels traveling through the Cape Fear River to the port.
Army Corps will share the costs of the studies. The letter agrees the ports will provide funds, the amount of which is yet determined, that will go toward environmental studies, and is not for funding for design and construction.
At N.C. Ports Authority Board meeting last week, Clark said that the letter “does not commit or obligate us or any non-federal partner to the overall construction costs.”
The studies will include NEPA, climate change analysis and other economic questions, officials have said.
NEPA, or the National Environmental Policy Act, requires federal agencies to take a look at the environmental effects of actions or projects like the harbor deepening and includes a variety of assessments to measure environmental impacts.
Clark has previously said that NEPA work and other studies could take place over the course of the next year or so if funding is obtained.
It will likely take years, however, before the project could reach the construction phase, Army Corps officials have said.
Any funding, federal and nonfederal, at this point would go toward studies and work to answer details needed to get the project approved for construction, Army Corps officials said in an email.
Once federal funding is obtained, the Army Corps will draft a cost-share agreement to share the costs of the studies for the ports authority to review.
“Since there is not federal funding at this time, there is no timeline for drafting and execution of the agreement by both parties,” Army Corps officials said in an email. “Federal funding comes [in] the annual appropriations process. At this time, proposed funding from the President’s budget for fiscal year 2022 has not been released.”
There has been a delay in the release of President Joe Biden's proposed budget for the next fiscal year. A small version of the budget was slated to be released this week.