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Staking its claim

18 Jun 2012
Charleston believes the future is a draft of 15.2 metres. Credit: Marvin Preston

Charleston believes the future is a draft of 15.2 metres. Credit: Marvin Preston

Charleston stakes its claim as the obvious choice for sought-after deepening approval, finds Martin Rushmere

Charleston has set the future entirely on being a port at 15.2 metres. “We are making an all-in bet on the future of big ships in our port, the expansion of the Panama Canal and the growth of the Southeast,” says Jim Newsome, chief executive of the South Carolina Ports Authority.

“Our aggressive capital plans reflect a lot of optimism in not only our port’s future, but also our state’s future.”

Embroiled in a dispute with next-door Savannah over which port should get priority in dredging, Charleston says it has a clear advantage in location and cost. Savannah is estimated to come in at $650m to get to 14.3 metres, double that for Charleston.

The two have become so suspicious of each other that governing state politicians have become involved, which has led to a lawsuit in South Carolina courts to stop money going to Georgia.


Poles apart

Their disagreement threatens the future of a proposed jointly-owned terminal at Jasper on the Savannah River.

"There remain serious questions about the ability of the Savannah River to support two-way, post-panamax ship traffic to the Jasper site with a 47-foot project," says Allison Skipper of the South Carolina Ports Authority.

"Our contention is that the industry’s true needs will include 50 feet plus (15.2 metres) depth, without tidal restriction, and the ability to safely pass two vessels in the channel. The standard has become 50 feet, as four other ports on the East Coast (New York, Baltimore, Norfolk and Miami) have been authorised to that depth. That is why we have pushed for a capacity and navigation study of the river as it relates to the Jasper project.

"Fortunately, we are beginning to make progress on that front, but still question the capability of the Savannah River and whether the current Savannah project affects the viability of a multi-billion investment for a Jasper Ocean Terminal," says Ms Skipper.

She notes that the port has "the deepest harbour in our competitive region, with 45 ft of water (13.7 metres) at mean low water with an additional 5 ft-6 ft (1.5 metres-1.8 metres) on the tides. Even with the completion of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project at 47 ft (14.3 metres), given the distance from open ocean to the terminal and the difference in salinity, Charleston’s current harbor will still have more capability for big ship traffic."

To back up the case for being the preferred port, Charleston quotes from a preliminary study by the Army Corps of engineers. “Preliminary studies at other nearby harbours show that Charleston Harbor would probably be the cheapest South Atlantic harbor to deepen to 50 ft.”


Two sides

Analyst and consultant Paul Bingham, economics practice leader for CDM Smith, has a wider view. just because one deepening costs much less than another doesn’t mean that only one of those channels could be justified for deepening in the long-term. It is quite possible with trade growth opportunities that both could be justified for deepening even with unequal costs to do so.

"The southeast region of the US is still growing relatively faster than the Northeast or the Midwest (or parts of the West)," says Mr Bingham, "so above national-average trade growth provides a good opportunity for both ports even as vessel depth capacity may be constrained during the next five years. And note that the regional cargo growth potential is two-way, not just for containerised imports, due to the stronger growth in manufacturing for export in the Southeast compared with other parts of the country."

Over the next 10 years, capital spending of $1.3bn is planned. Part of this, as well as preparing for the post-2014 era, Charleston is developing a former navy base into a container terminal. Costing $43m, the terminal will take up 280 acres and ramp up capacity by 50%.

A major technology upgrade will be included, in the form of a new terminal operating system to include optical character recognition on the dockside cranes, as well as an automated gate system.

The port has a significant amount of spare capacity. Container throughput in 2011 was 1.4m teu, compared with capacity of between 2.6m teu and 3.5m teu.


Fast mover

One of the big marketing features the port emphasises is average container moves of 41 an hour, the most in the country. Observers put this down to the use of a mix of union (International Longshoremen's Association) and privately contracted labour.

Although industry observers decline to discuss the sensitive issue of union involvement, they agree that one of the keys to success at Charleston has been the use of privately contracted operators in the control rooms of the quayside cranes.

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Jim Newsome, South Carolina Charleston believes the future is a draft of 15.2 metres. Credit: Marvin Preston

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