Environmental Concerns Slow Port Expansion In Georgia / South Carolina

1 09 2008


In China, massive construction projects can be done seemingly overnight. Beijing was transformed in just a few years for the Olympics. The first phase of the mammoth Yangshan container terminal off the coast of Shanghai was built in less than four years. Before it could open, the Chinese had to build a 20-mile bridge linking the port with the mainland.

The Chinese can move quickly because the government, whether it’s at the central, provincial or local level, can go ahead with a project with little regard for public opinion or environmental considerations. 

In the U.S., nearly any major project these days takes many years, especially if public funds are involved. Before construction can begin, there have to be feasibility studies, environmental impact studies and public hearings. Quite likely, there has to be approval
by legislative bodies, as well as funding authorizations and appropriations, often by government at multiple levels. As a result, it may take 10 or more years from conception to completion, and that’s often just for the first phase of a project.

So it is with container terminals at U.S. South Atlantic ports. Take the proposed North Carolina International Terminal. Plans for the facility were first announced in March 2006. The first phase of the terminal, however, is not expected to open until 2017.

And then there’s the new terminal at the former Charleston Navy Base in South Carolina. In January 2003, the South Carolina State Ports Authority submitted a permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers. Port officials hoped the first phase of the terminal could open in 2010 or 2011. That was predicated on getting a permit in two years. But the corps didn’t issue the permit until April 2007. Now the opening has been pushed back to 2013.

That’s no surprise. According to the port authority, the agencies involved in the permitting process included the Federal Highway Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and Bureau of Environmental Quality Control, the state’s Department of Natural Resources and the State Historic Preservation Office. Getting the permit at all was “frankly a miracle,” said Byron Miller, a spokesman for the port authority. “The corps drives our process. It extended the comment period.

As protracted as the Charleston permit process took, it was relatively fast, according to Aaron Ellis, a spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities. Ellis said it often takes seven to 10 years.

Even with the U.S. Maritime Administration interceding to fast-track the process, it took four years for the Anchorage Port Authority to obtain
a permit for a federally mandated  $136 million project, he said. “Four (years) is pretty darn fast,” Ellis said.

Once it got the permit, the South Carolina port authority got to work immediately. Bulldozers were out the next day to begin work on test embankments to start determining soil settlement. Demolition of buildings and utilities at the site has been completed. The engineering firm PB was hired to oversee the site consolidation and preparation phase.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation has begun soil analysis of the land where a 1.5-mile road to connect the terminal with Interstate 26 will be built. The state is expected to begin acquiring right-of-way property later this year. Thus far, $182.5 million has been allocated by the state and federal governments. The port authority hopes that money, along with earned interest, will be sufficient to cover the cost, Miller said. Bidding for road construction has not yet begun. The agency has presented some design and other measures to the DOT that it believes will reduce the cost considerably, he said.

Read on here.