The North Carolina International Terminal
The North Carolina State Ports Authority has purchased a 600-acre undeveloped site on the Cape Fear River just north of Southport, and commenced plans to construct a very large marine container terminal, second in size only to the combined terminals at Port Elizabeth and Port Newark, New Jersey. The terminal is intended to accommodate a new generation of very large, deep draft container ships expected to call at East Coast ports after improvements to the Panama Canal in planned for 2014.
The project would cost over $4 billion. $1.2 billion of that is for the extensive dredging of the Cape Fear River that would be required. New highways and improved railroad connections also would be required.
The State Ports Authority has spent $7 million in engineering and economic studies, but not a penny in tribute to environmental issues. Nor has there been any independent examination of the economics by State agencies without an interest in the outcome. On the pages linked below, Save the Cape provides critical environmental and economic analyses. Save the Cape will continue to gather information, and make all of that information available here.
Preliminary plans have been prepared by CH2M Hill, Inc., for the North Carolina State Ports Authority and delivered in 2008.
The preliminary plans describe an automated facility to load and unload containers from the latest generation of very large container ships. The “design vessel,” 1263 feet long, with a beam of 185 feet and draft of 50 feet, would not be able to pass through the Panama Canal, now or after completion of the third series of locks, planned for 2014. The enlarged canal would accommodate vessels of 160-foot beam, approximately 50% more than the current maximum.
In June 2010, PFRichardson/TEC, another consultant to the State Ports Authority, delivered an assessment of the CH2M Hill plans for the North Carolina International Terminal. This report provides some cost-saving suggestions, considerable detail on the design of the terminal itself, and a new cost estimate. With escalation, the complete project, with a capacity of three million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), would cost $4.4 billion.
PFRichardson/TEC provided a plan of building in stages. The first stage, with a capacity of about one million TEU, would cost a mere $2.95 billion.
The Channel in the Cape Fear River
Although the site purchased by the North Carolina State Ports Authority is located on the Cape Fear River about four miles from the mouth, the river is not a deep water harbor and the existing channel has been created by a succession of dredging projects. That channel is too shallow and too narrow for the vessels for which the port is intended, and has turns that cannot be navigated by such vessels. At the terminal site the river is only about one to four feet deep, and water of sufficient depth for the design vessel is seventeen miles out to sea. The river and the offshore channel must be dredged over a distance of 22 miles.
Consultants to the State Ports Authority recommend a new, straighter channel to the east of Battery Island to bypass the sharp turn between Battery Island and Southport. Such a channel would be cut through an area never used for navigation that is above water at low tide. The Wilmington District of the Corps of Engineers, however, prepared estimates of the dredging cost for the megaport using the existing channel alignment. The Corps estimate of the cost of initial dredging is $1.2 billion. The State of North Carolina would bear 60% of that cost.
Click here for details on the dredging planning and construction process.
The entire project–the terminal and the related dredging and highway and rail improvements–has been estimated to cost over $4.4 billion. The business plan requires capture of container movements from other East Coast container terminals representing about fifteen times the current container movements at the Port of Wilmington, 20 miles upriver. The container terminal at Wilmington operates at well under its capacity, even with container handling charges much lower than those of other ports serving the region. Click here for more detail on the economic issues and several comprehensive reports.
Needless to say, the environmental impacts of such a massive project would be very substantial. And although the North Carolina State Ports Authority has spent $7 million on studies, none of those studies have addressed environmental issues. Click here for more detail on the anticipated environmental consequences of the megaport project and some reports prepared by independent investigators.
The proposed port would be located next to the Brunswick Nuclear Plant, with two reactors and an above-ground spent-fuel storage facility, and immediately downriver from the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point, the largest ammunition transhipment facility in the world. This immediately comes to mind as a tempting target for terrorist attack, but an even greater problem is the magnification of the risk from ordinary accidents in the handling of hazardous materials, shipboard fires, containers lost overboard while approaching the coast, heavy truck traffic on local roads, and other potential calamities too numerous to mention. Click here for more detail.
The City of Southport, the five other municipalities in the vicinity of the proposed container terminal, several environmental organizations, and Congressman Mike McIntyre have made statements or adopted resolutions of opposition to the North Carolina International Terminal.
On July 27, 2011, following disclosure that the State Ports Authority was planning to build a plant at the State port at Morehead City to melt solid sulfur for onward shipping in the molten state, the Governor issued Executive Order No. 99, reciting that “it is important for state-owned and state-operated facilities to work with local governments and private neighbors to coordinate activities in such a manner that they may have an overall positive impact in the community of which they are a part.” Inasmuch as all six local governments in the Southport area have issued resolutions of opposition to the planned terminal on the basis of incompatibility with the local economy, which is based on the quality of life and the unique coastal environment, this Executive Order would by its terms prohibit further consideration of the planned container terminal. Nevertheless, the State Ports Authority and the NC Department of Transportation continue planning for the terminal.
Is It Over?
On July 21, 2010, after the opposition from local governments and Congressman McIntyre appeared and the North Carolina General Assembly passed a budget bill with a prohibition on use of State funds for the North Carolina International Terminal, the State Ports Authority issued a statement that it “is placing the proposed NC International Terminal project on hold.” The State Ports Authority removed information on the terminal from its Web site and discontinued public promotion of the project.
On December 7, 2010, Dee Freeman, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, sent a “letter of intent” to the Wilmington District of the US Army Corps of Engineers expressing the intention of the State to share the cost of a feasibility study for certain projects in the Cape Fear River to facilitate container ship traffic to the Port of Wilmington. The letter included this clause: “While the State of North Carolina does not desire to serve as the non-federal sponsor of the NCIT project, … . ” (‘NCIT” is North Carolina International Terminal.)
The Wilmington District of the Corps of Engineers treats this letter as a step towards redirecting the funds originally allocated to the reconnaissance study for the dredging for the North Carolina International Terminal. The “section 905(b) analysis” part of the reconnaissance study has been revised and concludes that there is a “Federal interest” in the projects named in Secretary Freeman’s letter. With the letter in hand, the planning process can move forward on those projects instead of focusing on the North Carolina International Terminal.
This was initially regarded as the end of the North Carolina International Terminal. However, two of the three components of the refocused study would be applicable to the North Carolina International Terminal. And the section 905(b) analysis which defines the scope of the feasibility study includes that terminal and associated dredging as an alternative.
The North Carolina State Ports Authority retains the property purchased for the container terminal (and the associated debt) and has not adopted a resolution abandoning the project. On December 15, 2010, the State Port Pilot reported
In June 2011, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed a budget bill continuing the prohibition on the use of State funds for the North Carolina International Terminal. When the bill went to the Senate, that prohibition was removed, and the final legislation did not include the prohibition.
In September 2011, management of the State Ports Authority presented to its Board of Directors a comprehensive review of forward plans which included the North Carolina International Terminal. See slide 59 in that review.
Yogi’s caution comes to mind: “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.”
The Maritime Strategy Study
In early 2011, the North Carolina Department of Transportation initiated a comprehensive, $2 million deepwater port study to investigate the feasibility of providing access to North Carolina ports by deep-draft vessels, to establish the State as a “portal to the global economy.” Among the options is the dormant container terminal project at Southport. Click here for the study Web site, which includes the scope of work and preliminary presentations describing progress.
The NCDOT chose nationally-recognized engineering firms, AECOM and URS to conduct the study, assisted by Eydo for public outeach. The public outreach part of the study is a major element, missing in previous studies. Thomas J. Harrelson, a former North Carolina Secretary of Transportation and officer of AECOM, manages the stakeholder relations for the project. He is particularly well suited for this task, being a long-time resident of the Southport area and familiar with local interests.
In February 2012, the study team released a draft final report with a “menu of alternatives” that included the megaport at Southport as an option. The cost was estimated to be $6.1 billion.