While the Port of Charleston reported record amounts of cargo this past budget year, business plummeted at its sister terminal in Georgetown during the same time period.
The State Ports Authority’s annual cargo tallies show Georgetown handled just 7,400 pier tons between July 2016 and June 2017. By comparison, port handled 249,500 tons in fiscal year 2016 — marking a 97 percent decline this past year.
Georgetown is a breakbulk (non-container) terminal. State Ports Authority leaders say the primary issue is that the port’s three largest customers in recent history no longer use it. Steel mill ArcellorMittal closed down its Georgetown operations in 2015, International Paper switched its cargo to containers in Charleston and Holcim US’s cement volumes have dropped for its Holly Hill facility.
International Longshoremen’s Association Chapter 1422 President Ken Riley said he remembers working the Georgetown docks with hundreds of other employees in the late 1970s. However, the port steadily declined as Charleston’s operations grew in the following decades. The Georgetown longshoremen’s chapter has since closed and merged with Charleston, with many Georgetown workers manning the Charleston docks. The chapter will send teams up to Georgetown when necessary, but Riley said such trips are occurring far less often.
Riley said the port’s biggest challenge is its very geography. Silt accumulates quickly in Georgetown Harbor and the Sampit River needs dredging to handle cargo vessels. But the Army Corp of Engineers bases its nationwide allotment dredging funds allotment off how much shipping traffic would use the harbor.
“The funding is based on the tonnage that moves across the docks,” Riley said. “Well, the tonnage cannot move across the docks at Georgetown because the water’s not there. It’s sort of like a Catch-22.”
State leaders have closed a struggling breakbulk port in the past. The Ports Authority shut down the Port Royal terminal in 2004, but have since struggled to reach a deal with any buyers. State legislators eventually set a deadline for the project to sell by an April auction. However, an official formal deal has not yet been finalized between the ageny and the would-be buyer.
Ports official have not said so publicly, but their actions indicate they do not view Georgetown as viable to the state’s long-term plans. The agency revealed in January it would be willing to shutter the facility entirely and allow the city to use it as part of a future redevelopment plan. Georgetown city leaders have been in negotiations with a potential buyer for the old steel mill site, but the process has stalled several times.
“We have been supportive of the discussions the City has had about the redevelopment of the area, but I believe those plans are on hold with the uncertainty of the steel mill sale,” SC Ports Authority spokeswoman Erin Dhand said in an email.
Riley said with a local steel mill closing, and other customers moving to the Port of Charleston he does not think the port’s viable in the foreseeable future.
“I don’t see anything in the immediate future that gives me hope we’ll be working there on a regular basis anytime soon,” he said.