CHARLESTON — The $300 million effort to deepen the Charleston Harbor shipping channel that has been on the fast track in recent months could be delayed by automatic government spending cuts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district engineer warned Tuesday.
“All I can tell you is that there is a potential our efforts could be delayed in the Charleston Harbor deepening study,” Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne told reporters.
He said the spending cuts, also called sequestration, could lead to furloughs among the 250 district employees. That, he said, would mean fewer people to work on the studies needed for the harbor project and potentially delay it.
Maritime interests want the harbor deepened from its current 45 feet to 50 feet to accommodate a new generation of larger container ships that will be calling when the Panama Canal is deepened in 2014.
Last year, the Obama administration designated Charleston and four other harbor projects as nationally significant and allowed required studies to be expedited. Originally, the deepening work wasn’t expected to be completed until 2024. But with the project on the fast track, that date was moved up to 2019.
A draft environmental impact statement on the deepening work is expected by next year. But Chamberlayne said that the spending cuts could delay that timetable.
“We will prioritize things in the district that could be impacted by furloughs, sequestration and budget cuts,” he said, adding that while the harbor project is a top priority “that doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
Chamberlayne spoke with reporters during a visit to the corps’ Clouter Creek dredge disposal area - a 1,400-acre area at the head of Charleston Harbor where silt and muck dredged from the shipping channel has been put for years.
The silt is pumped onto four cells in the area enclosed by dikes. To drive around the entire outside of the dike system is a 12-mile drive.
The water is slowly drained out in a process that takes several years, leaving behind solidified silt that is as hard as rock. On Tuesday, excavators were digging drainage trenches in one cell of the disposal site that looked like a lunar landscape.
Clouter Creek has capacity to handle dredge spoils for at least two decades. After that, the walls of the dikes can be made higher to accommodate more silt.
“This is crucial to the operation of the harbor,” Chamberlayne said. “If we didn’t have it, we would have to go to another upland disposal area not conveniently located or out to the ocean and the costs would increase tenfold.”