ATLANTIC BEACH — Dredging is set to begin Monday in Beaufort Inlet, where shoaling has significantly reduced the channel depth for commercial shipping.
The draft is restricted to 35 feet at high water, compared to the authorized depth of 45 feet at low tide, impacting business at the N.C. Port of Morehead City and creating hazards for marine navigation, sources say.
Commercial transits with a draft of 35 feet are made during daylight hours only, according to the Morehead City Pilots Association. Vessels are restricted to a draft of 32 feet at low tide.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ latest $7.9 million project should clear the channel to a depth of 43 feet, improving prospects for the state port. Dredging will also have an added benefit, County Shore Protection Officer Greg “Rudi” Rudolph said Friday during a meeting of the Morehead City Ports Committee at the Channel Marker Restaurant.
“This is the year they put sand on the beach,” he said.
The project is expected to remove about 775,000 cubic yards of material from the inlet to Bogue Banks beaches.
Since 2005, the Corps has placed dredged material on Bogue Banks beaches every third year, using various offshore disposal sites during other years. A 20-year dredged materials management plan has been drafted with a three-year cycle that would also include placing sand on Shackleford Banks, but that proposal has not been finalized.
Although important to tourism and beach towns, the main issue for the federal government is maintaining the channel. The shoaling – largely the result of sand from the western tip of Shackleford Banks plunging into the channel by natural processes – is impeding business at the N.C. Port of Morehead City. Ships departing the port are forced to leave with far less cargo than they could otherwise carry, something surveyor Charles Leeuwenburg has seen firsthand.
“A typical tanker, like the big orange tankers by the bridge that carry phosphoric acid, every centimeter they sink equates to about 47 tons of cargo. The bigger the ship, the bigger the tons per centimeter, which is a critical measure for us,” Mr. Leeuwenburg said Friday.
For those yet to embrace the Metric System, an inch equals 2.54 centimeters. Losing 3 feet of channel depth – 36 inches – totals more than 91 centimeters or nearly 4,300 tons of cargo that cannot be loaded onto a ship for export.
“That’s just a lot of tons,” Mr. Leeuwenburg said.
He said that at $30 per ton, a typical freight rate for the tankers, even a loss of only 2 feet would cost the port almost $86,000 in revenue for a single ship.
“That’s lost freight, lost revenue for the port and added expense for the shipper and it cuts the efficiency of the supply chain. We need this dredging bad, real bad,” said Mr. Leeuwenburg.
Shipping efficiency is measured in the cost to move a ton of cargo a distance of 1 mile. While marine transit is generally considered the most efficient mode, draft restrictions cut deeply into that efficiency, Mr. Leeuwenburg said. It’s the responsibility of the federal government, he said.
“As strategic as the port of Morehead City is to the military – the military saves three days deploying from Morehead, rather than deploying out of Norfolk – I find it hard to believe the government let this happen,” he said.
Mr. Rudolph said the outlook for future dredging is uncertain. Funding levels for the Corps have remained flat $5.4 billion for several years. Meanwhile, operational costs have increased as conditions have worsened.
“We’re getting close to crisis mode,” Mr. Rudolph said.
Also, the federal ban on Congress’ ability to earmark funds has had a big impact on dredging projects nationwide.
He said the Corps has no plan to address the migration of the western tip of Shackleford into the channel, other than “saw” it back with a cutterhead dredge. There is also no provision for dealing with the problem in the draft dredge spoils management plan under consideration. The natural processes will continue to dump more sand into the channel.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result,” Mr. Rudolph said.
He said added environmental regulation such as the proposed declarations of critical habitat for loggerhead turtles and rufa red knot shorebirds could have impacts on shipping, dredging and tourism.
Contact Mark Hibbs at 252-726-7081, ext. 229; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter @markhibbs.