WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The clock is ticking for the North Carolina Port of Wilmington (POW) if it is going to be able to accommodate the larger container vessels shipping companies plan to begin using this year.
To allow for larger ships to make call at Wilmington, NC Ports will need to once again widen its turning basin.
However, state agencies and environmental groups are concerned about the adverse effects the projects would have on endangered fish species that call the Cape Fear River home.
On April 17, NC Ports will be heard by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), essentially appealing a decision from the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, which denied the port authority’s request to excavate more than 19 acres of wetland.
Beginning later this year, two of POW’s major cargo customers plan to begin using 14,000 TEU ships — vessels named for their ability to carry 14,000 standard 20-foot x 8-foot containers.
When the POW widened its turning basin the last time, it was done because the Panama Canal was also being widened. At that time experts believed the canal couldn’t support a 14,000 TEU ship, so Wilmington’s port was widened to 1,400 feet, which can accommodate ships caring 8,500 to 12,000 TEU capacity.
That widening became “Phase 1” once it was determined that larger ships could fit through the Panama Canal, meaning the POW now needs to enter Phase 2 of its expansion in order to accommodate them.
Last spring, NC Ports conducted a simulation and determined that as the turning basin currently sits, even in the best conditions a 14,000 TEU would run aground.
The two companies planning to begin using the 14,000 TEU vessels this year — which combined make up 62 percent of the port’s container business — issued POW an ultimatum, saying their continued business relies on the port’s ability to accommodate the vessels by the beginning of 2020.
Additionally, other shipping companies, including Maersk and other major names, have said while they won’t begin using the ships this year, long-term continued business at POW will be predicated on the same.
Therefore, the port is seeking to begin widening the turning basin an additional 124 feet by dredging from both sides, a project that will cost around $30 million and take about seven months.
To do so, they will need to dredge 17.76 acres of “shallow and deep soft bottom habitat," as well as 1.4 acres of tidal marsh wetland. That dredging will remove approximately 560,000 cubic yards of sediment and vegetation — enough to fill the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool almost 17 times — which will be taken to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility on Eagle Island.
Then, the port will install a 1,416 foot toe-wall that will help maintain the basin’s required 42-foot depth.
Right now, the port has the contract out for bid, with a project start date planned for July 1, 2019.
NC Ports is in the middle of a $200 million overall expansion and “retooling” of the POW, and according to the port’s website saw a 23 percent increase in traffic in 2018, including weekly visits from large post-Panamax vessels.
“Ships calling the East Coast are getting larger," NC Ports spokesperson Bethany Welch said in an email Friday. “The largest ships able to transit the expanded Panama Canal have already started calling at ports up and down the East Coast. It is imperative that we further expand the turning basin to efficiently accommodate these growing vessels to maintain competitiveness and meet customer demand.”
The port has already spent $33 million on additional equipment to service 14,000 TEU vessels, including the two neo-Panamax cranes that arrived earlier this month.
The concerns that led the Department of Coastal Management to deny the port’s initial variance request are environmental.
A large portion of the acreage the port intends to excavate is designated as a Primary Nursery Area (PNA) as well as an anadromous fish spawning area. The area is closed to shellfishing, and is a known habitat and feeding ground for the Shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, which are endangered species.
While the National Marine Fisheries Service has not provided an opinion on the matter, the loss of the 1.4 acres of tidal marsh would be a major loss of habitat for juvenile sturgeon.
The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) on the other hand believes the project would have “significant adverse impacts” to the numerous species that live in or utilize the area.
The construction itself would likely not directly harm sturgeon and other fish, as the type of equipment proposed would allow them to easily escape and the proposed timeline is after the sturgeon migration period.
As a compromise, NC Ports has offered to donate $800,000 to a fish passage at Lock and Dam No. 1 in Bladen County, a companion project to the fish passage at Lock and Dam No. 2 the port helped fund in 2015. Additionally, the port will create tidal pools and a conservation easement near the Brunswick River.
The DMF is not confident these actions will be enough to mitigate the damage they anticipate from the project, but agreed to the terms as long as they have personnel onsite during the construction and there is a seven-year monitoring period.
In total, its estimated NC Ports infused approximately $15.4 billion into the state economy during the 2017-2018 fiscal year. The POW brought in $38 million alone last year, with 48 percent of that revenue coming from container businesses like the ones looking to bring in larger vessels.
According to New Hanover County, the POW contributes $687 million in state and local tax revenue and provides 87,700 jobs.
In a letter to the Coastal Resources Commission, the New Hanover County Commission expressed its support of the POW expansion project
“During meetings with Ports Authority Executive Director Paul Cozza, we learned that widening the port’s turning basin is critical to ensure the port can accept larger vessels that the shipping industry is increasingly using for greater efficiency. Without a wider turning basin, the Ports Authority risks losing customers to other ports in Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia,” the letter signed by chair Jonathan Barfield reads.
The letter goes on to express the commission’s hope the state will reconsider the port’s request for a variance to dredge the river.
Welch said the port cannot comment on the specifics of the hearing, but documents from the state indicate it is up to the port’s representation to convince the CRC undue hardship would be created by the denial of the request, and that the mitigation measures are enough to offset any negative effects. POW was fast-tracked onto the April CRC agenda.
The meeting will take place Wednesday, April 17 in Dare County.