Despite $283M Boost From State, Rest Of Port Project Still In Limbo

By Johanna F. Still, posted Nov 30, 2021
Multiple steps and likely years remain before the North Carolina State Ports Authority can move forward with its proposed project to deepen the Wilmington Harbor to 47 feet. (Photo courtesy North Carolina Ports Authority)

Earlier this month, the North Carolina state budget set aside $283 million to cover the non-federal portion to construct the Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project.  

Despite the big-ticket award, progress on the project is stalled as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awaits federal funding to cover a required pre-construction review process. 

The project would deepen the 38-mile Wilmington Harbor, currently 44 feet deep within its ocean entrance bar and 42 feet along the channel to the port, to a depth of 47 feet. Additional widening to accommodate the world’s largest ships is also proposed. 

Without deepening, the North Carolina State Ports Authority asserts container traffic will choose a competing port in Savannah instead. Savannah’s port project to dredge to 47 feet is nearing completion, according to a ports spokesperson.  

The Wilmington Harbor was designed to accommodate a 965-foot-long vessel carrying 65,000 tons, according to the ports' feasibility study. Today, it can handle the largest vessels in the East Coast trade, and was managing a 1,200-foot-long vessel Tuesday evening, according to a ports spokesperson. Carriers face tide restrictions and a lengthy haul down the Cape Fear River on their way to the port –– factors that dampen its draw. 

“We can handle the largest vessels that call the East Coast today but they cannot come into the Port of Wilmington fully loaded,” ports COO Doug Vogt explained in a Nov. 18 presentation to a UNCW research group.  

Dredging is the most expensive component of the construction phase, expected to cost at least $846 million. The state will pay 25% and Congress would be responsible for the remaining portion, $562 million, an allocation that has yet to take place.  

“This is in its very early stages,” said Dave Connolly, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A multitude of steps await in the years-long appropriations process, Connolly said. “We’re barely in the beginning of that.” 

As for the current phase of the project, USACE doesn’t have the resources necessary to undertake the latest project step.

Proposed federal navigation projects first require a feasibility study to determine and back up a purpose and need. USACE typically crafts these studies on its own and coordinates with non-federal partners to determine which projects to focus on.  

In 2011, USACE developed a reconnaissance report that recommended various modifications and widening activities at the Wilmington Harbor, but stopped short of further endorsing channel deepening. (The ports' turning basin was widened in a two-phase project based on recommendations that arose from this report, from 1,200 feet to 1,400 feet in 2016 then later to a width of 1,524 feet in 2020.)  

USACE's recommendations included modifications at the existing project depth. So in 2018, the ports authority sought to undertake the deepening process independently and pursued the feasibility study in consultation with USACE, according to a ports spokesperson.

Since 1986 – when non-federal interests were first authorized to take on their own feasibility studies – at least a dozen have occurred in the U.S., according to Connolly. A batch of six was approved under President Donald Trump’s Water Resources and Development Act in 2020, which included amendments designed to speed up projects by allowing non-federal interests to undertake their own feasibility and environmental studies instead of waiting for federal funding.  

Wilmington’s deepening project was among them.  

In February 2020, the ports authority published its feasibility study and environmental report for the project (the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works had sent a draft version of the study back in 2019, seeking significant revisions, according to Coastal Review Online). USACE had "minimal involvement" in the report, according to Connolly, but did provide minimal guidance on USACE processes and methodologies. USACE was involved to the extent the regulations allow, according to a ports spokesperson. 

The ports’ study provided the basis for conditional authorization from Congress, Connolly said. 

By May 2020, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works had reviewed the report, determining several conditions that must be met prior to construction. The review found the screening criteria and economic analysis was flawed, among other items.  

Environmental groups and the Village of Bald Head Island have flagged concerns with the proposal, while economic development interests have endorsed it. 

In total, the ports authority has spent approximately $8 million on its pre-construction studies and efforts, according to a spokesperson. 

Now, it’s up to USACE to thoroughly address each item the Assistant Secretary identified as a concern, a process it can’t undertake without funding. It must also conduct an environmental review; though the ports authority’s report included one, it cannot be considered as an official Environmental Impact Statement because USACE wasn’t officially involved until later on in the process.  

“USACE will use what it can from the NCSPA study and then address the conditions and concerns” raised by the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Connolly said. 

In May 2021, ports authority director Brian Clark wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-07, requesting assistance in obtaining $750,000 for USACE so it could conduct the pre-construction studies. Rouzer formalized the funding request in June, choosing the project as one of 10 he is permitted to request under the new congressional earmark process.  

A $500,000 chunk of pre-construction dollars was incorporated in one of the House’s latest appropriations bills approved this summer. A similar measure also exists in the Senate, according to a ports spokesperson, as Congress works through its annual appropriations process. 

“I was very pleased to get funding included in the House Energy and Water appropriations bill to help facilitate the environmental study for the Port of Wilmington’s Harbor Navigation Improvement Project,” Rouzer said in a statement. “While the appropriations process is ongoing in the Senate, I will continue to advocate for this project to help strengthen the Port of Wilmington as a hub of economic activity for Southeastern North Carolina and our nation.” 

Correction: This article has been corrected to include that a $500,000 pre-construction line item is also present in the Senate, not just the House. Additional information from the ports has been incorporated.

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