Georgetown port turning away work: Silty bottom keeps many cargo ships at bay

By Aliana Ramos, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Feb. 24–GEORGETOWN — The director at the port of Georgetown said the dredging situation there is now bad enough that the port turns away cargo and diverts it to Charleston.

Such actions could continue to prove costly for the local area unless federal lawmakers allocate about $8 million to remove the silt at the bottom of the port’s waterway and restore its depth to 27 feet, according to a recent study.

Every 500,000 tons of cargo that passes annually through the port of Georgetown brings in about 42 new jobs for the area, $1.3 million in new local household income and $4.4 million in local economic output, according to a study by research economist Don Schunk from Coastal Carolina University.

The study was commissioned by The Georgetown County Alliance for Economic Development to show the economic impact of the port of Georgetown. The report will be officially unveiled Friday at the alliance’s forum on attracting eco-friendly businesses. The forum is at 11 a.m. at Pawleys Plantation and is free and open to the public.

The S.C. State Ports Authority has been working with the legislative delegation to get federal funding to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for dredging the port’s channel, but the corps’ budget is developed two years in advance and it’s based on a cost benefit formula.

Ports with tonnage over 1million tons get priority. Activity at the Port of Georgetown, a breakbulk facility, has declined from more than 1.8 million tons in 2000 to about 107,000 tons in 2009, according to the study. The decline can be attributed to the indefinite closure of the steel mill, the shift to container shipping by the International Paper mill and the economic recession, the study states.

Despite the challenges, the port has shown that it can successfully attract customers.

In July, the port authority signed a 20-year contract with Carolina-Pacific LLC to export wood briquettes from Georgetown, a deal expected to bring up to 35 jobs.

Several companies are interested in doing business with the port and could bring in up to 3 million tons of cargo a year over the next few years, but the operations are waiting for the channel to be dredged from its existing 21 feet to 27 feet, according to the study.

“The cargo is there,” said port director David Schronce. “We are still waiting for the big dollars to come.”

If the efforts of Schronce and the SPA are successful, 3 million tons of cargo could generate 250 jobs for the local economy, $7.6 million in new annual household income, and a local economic impact of $27 million, according to Schunk’s study.

“If we can get $9 million to dredge and convert it to $27 million, I say that’s smart money. That’s good business,” said Steve Strickland, a member of the Georgetown Pilotage Commission.

The White House proposed spending $320,000 for condition surveys and environmental compliance activities for the port of Georgetown in its recent budget recommendations. The recommendations will have to be approved by Congress and hearings are expected through the end of May. If money for dredging in Georgetown were also added and approved this year, the earliest the money would be available to the corps would be 2011.

In the meantime, the Georgetown port will have to continue to turn away larger ships.

Earlier this year, the port sent a ship carrying about 10,000 tons of steel to Veteran’s Terminal in Charleston because the port’s channel does not have the necessary depth to safely bring the vessel in, Schronce told the pilotage commission Tuesday.

The port has another ship expected at the end of March, but only if the ship can lighten its load.

Contact ALIANA RAMOS at 443-2434.

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