Over the past few months, major advancements in the Charleston Harbor Post 45 project have occurred, resulting in increased interest and excitement around the Lowcountry. The process to potentially deepen the harbor to allow deep-draft post-Panamax vessels to access the harbor is now underway and it is important to explain where the project will go from here.
The Post 45 project began with a Congressional add to the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2010 budget allowing the Charleston District to complete a reconnaissance study on Charleston Harbor to determine if there was a federal interest in conducting a feasibility study. The reconnaissance phase was completed in July 2010 and did show federal interest in performing a feasibility study on the Post 45 project.
With the feasibility study on tap, the Charleston District could not begin without funding. Due to overall national constraints, the President’s Budget for FY11 did not allocate funding to initiate the study, but on May 17th, the FY 11 work plan for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was approved by the Office of Management and Budget and included $150,000 of federal funding, which allowed the study to begin. With this funding, the Charleston District has begun the multi-year feasibility study to determine if deepening Charleston Harbor is both economically beneficial and environmentally acceptable to the nation.
On June 20th, the Charleston District signed the Feasibility Cost-Sharing Agreement (FCSA) with the project’s sponsor, the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SCSPA). With the signing of the FCSA, the study officially began. The feasibility study will be cost-shared 50-50 with the SCSPA, but will be conducted by the Charleston District. Here, the Charleston District will identify the National Economic Development (NED) plan that maximizes the net benefits to the nation as a result of deepening the federal channel, which is currently authorized to be dredged to 45 feet.
A feasibility study examines the economic benefits and environmental impacts of a proposed project, determining the most economically beneficial and environmentally acceptable alternative proposed. This means that the Charleston District, until completion of the feasibility study, does not yet know to what specific depth the Corps of Engineers will recommend to Congress as the NED plan for Charleston Harbor. The District’s engineers, planners, surveyors and project manager will work to analyze all possible alternatives to determine what depth, if deepened, the Corps will recommend to Congress for authorization.
In the feasibility study, the Charleston District will look at many factors to determine the best possible alternative. The District will follow the same six-step process that every feasibility study completed by the Corps nationwide must undergo in civil works projects like these.
The District will have to run tests on deeper depths that haven’t been measured in the past and may come across different sediment types than those at the current 45 foot depth. Geotechnical borings and salinity tests will be on the list with many others. Different sediment types may mean different measures would have to be used to remove the sediment, which impacts the alternatives.
The District will also run ship simulations at the different depths with different weather conditions to see how the harbor would be affected and consider the safety of the ship and those in the harbor. The effects on marine life will also be reviewed to minimize disruption to their natural habitats. Where to dispose of the additional maintenance material dredged from the harbor floor and what the life of the harbor will look like over the course of the next 50 years are other questions that have to be answered when conducting the feasibility study.
A feasibility study for a project of this magnitude would typically take 5-8 years and cost approximately $19 million, but every effort will be made to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. With the completion of the expansion of the Panama Canal planned for 2014, the District realizes the urgency of this study. A first round of meetings with Corps headquarters in Washington D.C. has shown promise in the ability to streamline some processes. However, many factors can affect this goal, such as funding and requirements other state and federal resource agencies may have, but it is a top priority for the District and every effort will be made to meet this goal.
The first step in the study is to begin the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process by planning and executing public and stakeholder meetings to receive input on the deepening study. The Charleston District will use this information to develop what alternatives will be evaluated as part of the study to determine if the harbor will be deepened and the potential future depth for the harbor.
If, at the end of the feasibility phase, the study results recommend a deepening of Charleston Harbor, the Charleston District would move to the preconstruction engineering and design phase, an approximate two year undertaking. If Congress authorizes construction of the Post 45 project and provides funds to do so, the District will enter the construction phase, which is estimated to take approximately four years to complete the deepening of the 44.6 miles of channel, three turning basins and one anchorage basin that make up the Charleston Harbor project.
“We are excited to have received the money needed to initiate the feasibility phase for the Post 45 project,” said Pat O’Donnell, chief of planning and environmental branch. “We are going to work as quickly and efficiently as possible while navigating through the process required to decide if deepening Charleston Harbor is economically feasible and environmentally acceptable to the nation.”
New Commander and District Engineer, Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne added, “I look forward to continuing the great work that the District has already started and helping move us forward in this project.”
The Corps has maintained Charleston Harbor for more than 130 years and has dredged it every year during that time to ensure the channel is at the required federal project depth, spending approximately $10-15 million and removing 2-3 million cubic yards of maintenance material from the harbor floor each year. Construction to deepen the harbor to the now federally authorized 45 foot depth began in 1999 and was completed in 2004.