The logistics behind dredging the port of Georgetown to its original depth have always been a Catch-22: The port needs to be dredged to bring in more tonnage, but the port doesn't have enough tonnage to justify spending the money to get it dredged.
But there is hope that once the ArcelorMittal steel mill reopens around January, more tonnage will come through the port, putting it higher on the Army Corps of Engineers list of projects to be funded. And U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is working on legislation that could change the way such projects are funded and mean more money for South Carolina's ports.
Ports that bring in less than 1 million tons of commercial cargo a year are designated "low use" and given little priority in the corps' budget. In the first eight months of 2010, Georgetown handled about 118,906 tons of commercial cargo, said Byron Miller, spokesman for the S.C. State Ports Authority.
In the past, the steel mill pier alone handled more than 1 millions tons annually, Miller said. The last year the port reached that mark was 2003, however, and tonnage dropped off afterward, despite the mill's continued work.
James Sanderson, president of the local United Steel Workers Union, said he is hopeful that "with our plant re-opening we will be able to reach that 1 million plateau."
While reaching the 1 million ton threshold would put Georgetown on the list to compete for funding, "it puts you low on the list," said Glenn Jeffries, spokeswoman for the corps' Charleston District.
There is another important criterion apart from the 1 million threshold - the cost per ton to maintain the port, said Lisa Methney, the assistant chief of programs and project management division for the Corps.
To dredge the Georgetown port to its original 27 foot depth would require $31 million over three years, said Jeffries, and to maintain it at 27 feet would be another $6 to $7 million a year.
Methney said for the budgeting process, it's all about tonnage.
"It makes it very difficult for Georgetown to compete in the budgeting process," said Methney
U.S. lawmakers like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., have requested millions of dollars for the dredging of the Georgetown port over the past several years, but because the port didn't make the Corps' priority list, they have only been able to secure a fraction of their requests.
For example, this year, Graham requested about $4 million for the port in Energy and Water appropriations, said Kevin Bishop, Graham's spokesman. But the version that was approved by the Senate Appropriations committee dedicated only $1.18 million to Georgetown.
The House version of that same appropriations bill has $1 million earmarked for Georgetown, requested by Clyburn and Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C.
Those bills will be considered when Congress returns to session after the November elections.
"When the appropriations cycle begins again in early 2011, that will be the time to request an earmark to study the deepening of the Georgetown harbor, and Congressman Clyburn is committed to seeking funding for that study," said Hope Derrick, Clyburn's spokeswoman.
DeMint, a vocal opponent of the earmark process, is working on legislation that would change how projects for South Carolina's ports are funded.
"South Carolina's ports are economic engines that are essential to the continued growth and prosperity of our state, but until now, they've had to rely on a broken system that misallocates funds and prevents long-term sustainability. I have been fighting for years to reform how these projects are funded, because we can't depend on a system that funds projects based on politics instead of merit. South Carolina is now being shortchanged because of the wastefulness of the earmark system," DeMint said.
The Corps of Engineers Reform Act would change the way the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is spent, giving the states that the tax is collected from more freedom to use that money for their own ports. It would also establish a commission that would prioritize water projects performed by the corps and would give the corps the ability to perform studies and projects without congressional earmarks, according to Wesley Denton, DeMint's spokesman.
Denton said states would get back the taxes through a Harbor Maintenance Block Grant Program and the states would be able to use the funds for current operations and harbor deepening projects.
"No more going to Congress hat in hand to beg for dredging funds," he said.
He also said "millions more would return to South Carolina from HMT collections at its own ports then under the current system."
A report prepared for members of Congress in January by the Congressional Research Service said that because federal government data on cargo value is collected only for international cargo, and not domestic cargo, it's "not possible to calculate the total amount of HMT revenue that could be collected at each port."
However, DeMint said in an editorial earlier this year that in 2008, shippers coming into Charleston put more than $36 million in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.
Denton also said the nonpartisan commission would develop funding priorities for the corps based on "criteria that looks at what's essential to U.S. commerce, not who has the most power on Capitol Hill."
DeMint's legislation has not yet been introduced in the Senate, but other legislation introduced in April, in both the House and Senate, that aims to ensure the trust fund is used for harbor maintenance is still waiting in committee.