While much attention has been focused on the deepening of Charleston harbor, 60 miles away is another port that badly needs dredging, and may soon become too shallow for ships to reach it.
That is the Port of Georgetown which, as recently as 2003, was averaging more than 100 ships per year. This year, senior harbor pilot Edwin Jayroe says there have been 6 vessels. Jayroe is one of three remaining pilots– who are needed to help cargo ships navigate the 16 miles of channel from the Atlantic Ocean to the port itself
“We all have part-time jobs we’ve picked up over the last few years,” Jayroe said, “As long as there’s a little bit of gleam of hope somewhere, (we’re) not likely to quit.”
Georgetown officials say the lack of traffic has two causes. First, the port’s break-bulk cargo is largely materials related to the construction industry, which took a hit when the real estate market crashed in 2007. The resulting loss in business— especially when the port’s top customer Georgetown Steel declared bankruptcy– dropped the port below a critical mark of 1 million tons shipped per year. Critical, because the Army Corps of Engineers considers any ports below that mark “low use” and a low priority for dredging funds.
But the second issue is the bigger threat. Silt has slowly continued filling the channel of the Winyah Bay, which has not been fully dredged since 2003 (although some was done in 2005). Now, it’s too shallow for many cargo ships to safely navigate.
“Before there was ever any dredging done, the channel was twelve-foot on the bar, and nine-foot in town here,” Jayroe said (officials say it needs to be 24 feet deep), “It’s getting close to pre-dredging drafts right now.”
The shallow waters are already having an impact. ArcelorMittal (which acquired the former Georgetown Steel) now ships through Wilmington, instead. The local chapter of longshoremen had to close their union office due to a lack of business.
Worried about the port’s future, Georgetown County legislators appointed the Port Dredging Task Force earlier this summer. The group held its first meeting this week. Its primary goal: how to get the funding.
“It’s like a chicken and the egg scenario,” chairman Tom Tilley said, “We can’t get the vessels in unless we have the depth, but we can’t get the depth unless we get the vessels in. So, which comes first?”
The port has shipped about 600,000 tons this year, which is much higher than 2009 and 2010. However, it still falls short of the 1 million mark.
A full dredging of the entire channel would cost $30 million, according to State Sen. Ray Cleary (R-Georgetown), who also serves on the task force. Because the Winyah Bay is considered federal waters, any maintenance funding must come from the Army Corps of Engineers. But, because Georgetown is now considered a low priority, “those funds always get cut,” Tilley said. In the past, the port could have requested a congressional earmark, but those are now banned by House rules.
Tilley also acts as chairman of the Georgetown Economic Development Alliance. He admitted the task force has its work cut out.
“We don’t have pre-prepared answers,” he said, “So, the first phase of our work is to actually determine what all the facts are so that we can educate ourselves… for making concrete decisions that will actually work.”
“We can’t keep waiting (for federal help),” Tilley said, “We’ve been waiting since the early 2000s.”