The state ports’ biggest shipping customer has been losing $2 million a month since October because the sand-clogged navigation channel at Morehead City is still too shallow to handle fully laden freighters.
But a dredging operation that began in May is expected to bring some relief by August, helping the state’s second-busiest port get back to normal.
“At that point, we should be able to get our ships in and out, free and clear,” Ray McKeithan, spokesman for PotashCorp Aurora, said Wednesday after a meeting with local pilots, state officials and an Army Corps of Engineers general.
PotashCorp, also known as PCS Phosphate, imports raw sulfur and exports fertilizer through Morehead City, where 18 ships carried more that 1.1 million metric tons of its cargo last year. The Beaufort County mining company and other shippers have been light-loading their vessels to comply with restrictions enforced by the local pilots who guide ships into port.
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Citing the limits of federal funding in recent years, the Corps of Engineers cut back on maintenance dredging that might have prevented what port officials say is unprecedented shoaling, which reduced the navigable depth of the Atlantic Ocean passage to Morehead City by 10 feet last fall.
State officials and members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation sounded alarms in February, and the Obama administration freed up $4.1 million – nearly doubling its 2015 allocation for Morehead City. With the added funding, the Corps of Engineers was able to spend $7.8 million on a new dredging contract.
That will be enough money to get rid of a “speed bump” in the channel, where shoaling limits ship depths to a 33-foot draft. But Corps of Engineers officials said two more dredging projects will be needed over the coming year to fully restore the channel to its advertised depth of 45 feet.
“The federal budget for civil works is pretty flat,” Gen. C. David Turner, who oversees Corps of Engineers operations in the Southeastern United States, said at Wednesday’s meeting. “We are faced with constrained funding.”
Obama has budgeted $8 million for Morehead City in the coming year, up from an original figure of $5 million this year, but Turner said he can’t predict funding levels for future years. State and local governments have started to move away from their traditional reliance on the federal government to keep navigation channels open. Turner welcomed decisions by local governments including Carteret and Dare counties to chip in, and the state’s decision in 2014 to start spending $5 million a year.
“I know that North Carolina is stepping up to the plate to contribute funds to assist us in our dredging,” Turner said.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a conduit for barges that meet ships at the Morehead City port. Commercial traffic is heavier on the waterway in North Carolina than anywhere else in the Southeast, Turner said.
Nucor Steel, another shipper hurt by the channel shoaling, relies on iron loaded from ships onto barges – each carrying the equivalent of 125 tractor-trailer loads – that make a 30-hour journey to its factory in Hertford County.
Barge traffic reduced
“We push everything up the inland waterway,” Will Hollowell of Stevens Towing, which moves the Nucor barges, told Turner. “With light-loaded ships, Nucor is bringing in about half the tonnage they were wanting to be bringing. We’re glad the dredging operations are going well, and they are ready to bring in full ships as soon as possible.”
The Corps of Engineers maps the channel depth with frequent sonar surveys, displaying the results in color-coded charts that range from dangerously shallow red to deep ocean blue.
“I could almost walk across the channel in some places here,” said Bob Keistler, navigation projects manager for the Corps of Engineers Wilmington District, pointing to a bright red swath on the latest survey chart.
That’s where the dredge Savannah was working Wednesday afternoon, in green waters just 12 feet deep, about two miles east of the Morehead City docks.
It’s a cutter-head dredge, digging up sand with whirling mixmaster blades and vacuuming it away. The sand is passed through an underwater pipeline to a barge and then to a cavernous scow that will be towed away, opening its bottom in waters chosen to receive dredge spoils.
That choice by the Corps of Engineers is not popular with Morehead City pilots, who say it is so close to the channel that it may defeat the purpose of dredging. Some locals believe that this year’s dredge spoils will be part of next year’s shoaling.
“If you get it farther away from the dynamics of the channel, you could possibly do yourselves some good,” Andrew Midgett Jr., president of the Morehead City Pilots Association, told Turner. “I’m talking about a mile west, maybe 2 or 3 miles. Get it away so it doesn’t work itself back into the inlet.”
Turner said he would consider the recommendation. But local Corps officials said they think it’s better to deposit the sand closer to the shore, where it might find a beneficial use.
“We’re like everyone else – we don’t want it to go back in the channel,” said Shannon Geoly, a Corps official overseeing the dredging project. “We want it to go to the beaches.”