Georgetown Co. wants to free up dollars approved only for port dredging

VIDEO: Georgetown Co. wants to free up dollars approved only for Georgetown port deepening

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - There are growing concerns the port of Georgetown will close forever.

There’s been little movement to dredge its channels since Georgetown County voters approved a referendum to pay for the project in 2014. Some now worry what abandoning the project could do to Georgetown industries, like Liberty Steel.

In 2019, Gov. Henry McMaster mentioned a “revitalized port of Georgetown” in his state of the state address. While many saw it as a sign of hope, the reality is that the project will likely never move forward, despite support from Georgetown County voters in 2014.

Georgetown County spokesperson Jackie Broach said the project has been deemed to be no longer viable or economically beneficial for our area by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the S.C. Ports Authority. It was originally earmarked to receive $6 million in Capital Project Sales Tax monies. However, Broach said the county was taken by surprise when projected costs for the dredging doubled almost immediately after the referendum was passed.

Broach said the initial plan was based on projected costs totaling about $30 million dollars. State and federal funds were supposed to be added to the local dollars supplied by Georgetown County to cover the bill. However, Broach said when the county notified the US Army Corps of Engineers they were ready to move forward, local leaders were told the price tag on the project had doubled.

Progress on the project has since stalled. Georgetown County leaders are now exploring other options, which may include using referendum funds for other projects, like dredging of the inner harbor for smaller boats or toward continuation of a feasibility study the city is working on.

It’s against state law to use money approved by voters for one project to pay for another, so the county has contracted with an attorney, who is familiar with capital project sales tax issues, to help them determine what can be done with the remaining funds from the tax.

In the meantime, some still hope the port of Georgetown can open again. The president of Steelworkers Local 7898, James Sanderson, said a revitalized port is necessary to maintain the industries that sit along the banks of Winyah Bay.

Sanderson said Liberty Steel could become more sustainable and productive if it had shipping access. He said current conditions require the manufacturing company must have its ships go to Wilmington, NC, and then materials are trucked to Georgetown. He fears a lack of port access could mean Liberty Steel’s Georgetown location will struggle to remain competitive.

He would like to see Gov. McMaster deliver a portion of the state’s $1.8 billion in additional revenue to the Georgetown port.

At this time, the Governor’s office has not responded to requests for comment.

The port of Georgetown is unique in its challenges and uses. It is unlike the port of Charleston because it is a break-bulk facility. It handles goods that will not economically or physically fit in a standard 20-foot long container, such as coal or cement. While its channels require yearly maintenance, its inside channel was last dredged in 2008. Since then, the harbor has filled in with silt, mud, and sand, leaving some areas only a foot deep.

“We continue to work with city and county officials as they find a path forward that is best for the Georgetown community," said a spokesperson for the SC Ports Authority.

In a statement, the US Army Corps of Engineers explained the struggle the project has faced to gain federal funding.

Georgetown Harbor is in a Operation and Maintenance (O&M) status. Therefore, what has been discussed is either returning the Federal navigation channels to their authorized depth (27 feet MLLW) or some shallower depth depending on the operational needs of the vessels calling the Port of Georgetown. The last time the Corps performed a cost estimate to return the Federal navigation channel in Georgetown Harbor to its authorized depth was December 2016 and the cost was approximately $100M. In a performance-based Federal budgeting paradigm, Georgetown Harbor does not compete well for the finite Operation and Maintenance (O&M) funding that must be allocated across the nation, while prioritizing the nation’s most critical navigation infrastructure. Lots of metrics are used to prioritize Federal investment, but an easy example is the tonnage handled by the Port. According to the Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center, in 2018, the Port of Georgetown did not crack the top 150 national ports in terms of tonnage handled. It is not only the cost to regain depth, but also the annual investment needed to maintain the depth once it is achieved that is a challenge. Depending on the desired operational depth, the cost to maintain the channels and the upland dredged material placement areas would likely also present challenges. Georgetown County and the City of Georgetown are the best sources of information for the current status with regards to future plans for Georgetown Harbor. They are consulting with Coastal Carolina University to examine whether there are some changes to the channels or structures that could be added to the system in order to reduce the amount of material that would need to be dredged on a regular (potentially annual) basis. The Corps is not in charge of this effort, but has supported it with data about Georgetown Harbor and coordinates with the County, City and Coastal Carolina University researchers as they need us.

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