Plan would deepen Charleston harbor at cost of $500 million, higher than original projection

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South Carolina Ports Authority president and CEO Jim Newsome discusses a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on deepening the Charleston Harbor shipping channel in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement released Tuesday proposes that the inner harbor be deepened to 52 feet in a project estimated to cost a half billion dollars. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

FILE - In this March 20, 2014, file photo, a container ship makes its way into the Port of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on deepening the harbor shipping channel. The study proposes that the inner harbor be deepened to 52 feet in a project estimated to cost a half billion dollars. A final decision on the work will be made next year. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith, File)

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed Tuesday that the Charleston Harbor shipping channel be deepened to 52 feet in a project costing just over a half billion dollars.

"This is a signature day for the Port of Charleston, for the state of South Carolina and for the nation," said Jim Newsome, the president and CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority shortly after the Corps released the long-awaited draft feasibility study and environmental impact statement.

The Corps' tentative plan suggests deepening the inner harbor from its current 45 feet to a depth of 52 feet. The entrance channel would be extended and deepened from its current 47 feet to 54 feet.

The price tag, $509 million, is higher than the $350 million previously suggested.

Brian Williams, the Corps' project manager, said the initial projection was based on a depth of 50 feet. He added on-site studies found more rock than expected below the harbor entrance. Removing that rock raises the cost.

Under the plan, the project cost would be shared between the federal government and the South Carolina State Ports Authority. The federal share is an estimated $166 million; the state share $343 million.

The South Carolina General Assembly has already put aside $300 million for the work.

"I don't think it's unreasonable for the legislature to come up with another $50 million at the time we need it," said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau and chairman of the State Ports Authority Oversight and Review Committee.

Local maritime interests wanted the channel deepened to at least 50 feet so the Port of Charleston can handle a new generation of larger container ships. Newsome said handling larger ships without waiting for high tides so they can reach the docks is a key to the competitiveness of the state's ports.

He said a 52-foot harbor "ensures that SCPA will continue to grow above the market average and remain a top 10 port, facilitating trade and economic development for our entire state, region and nation."

The corps will take public comment through Nov. 24 and hold a public meeting Oct. 21 on the Charleston Harbor proposal. A final decision on the project, what is called a chief's report, is expected next September.

Bret Walters of the Corps said it will then take between 18 months and two years to design the project. Newsome said he's hopeful the deepening work can be completed by the end of the decade.

The impact statement was released a day before the Corps of Engineers signs a cost-sharing agreement with Georgia allowing construction on a more than $700 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel to the Georgia ports.

Under the Water Resources Development Act passed by Congress earlier this year ports can begin work on deepening the harbors and later be reimbursed from the federal government.

The Corps' 345-page study determined that deepening Charleston Harbor was economically justified but that it would require mitigation for more than 280 acres of wetlands that will be degraded with higher salinity levels as a result the work.

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