MOREHEAD CITY — Ships calling at the port here may soon face a less treacherous entry through Beaufort Inlet.
Dredging began Wednesday to remove about 500,000 tons of sand, mainly from a shoal that has extended nearly two-thirds across the shipping channel from the tip of Shackleford Banks.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded the $4.85 million contract to Marinex Construction Inc. of Charleston, S.C. The company sent its cutterhead/pipeline dredge Savannah earlier this week to perform the work.
Roger Bullock, deputy chief of operations at the Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington District, said the project is not intended to clear the entire channel to its authorized depth of 45-47 feet, but rather to focus on a trouble spot in the cutoff channel in the vicinity of red buoy 16A. Shoaling in the area was a major concern for port officials and ship pilots.
“They felt that the shoal was going to completely cut them off if we didn’t go ahead and cut it out right now,” Mr. Bullock said Thursday in a phone interview.
Although limited dredging was done here in January, the Corps has been unable due to budget constraints to properly clear the channel in more than two years.
The project earlier this year was done with the hopper dredge McFarland, which isn’t capable of getting to extremely shallow spots because of its design.
The dredge Savannah is able to approach the shoal and remove with its cutterhead the material the McFarland couldn’t reach.
The removed material is pumped via hydraulic pipeline to a floating “spider rig” where it is then dumped onto hopper barges or scows that will transport it to a near-shore disposal site in the ocean. Two scows will be used on an alternating basis – one receiving material while the other hauls it to the disposal site – throughout the project.
The work will continue 24 hours per day, seven days a week until about July 31.
Mr. Bullock said the urgency of the situation makes the job unusual in a number of ways.
“The way this came about was we met with the Morehead City pilots, the state port in Morehead City and the Coast Guard prior to advertising the job,” Mr. Bullock said. “If we had waited until fiscal year 2014 (which begins Oct. 1), we could have a large hydraulic pipeline job with all the material going to beach. Or we could do something now and give the port some relief to continue to operate. The port and the pilots were in agreement. They were very afraid of what that shoaling was doing and that it could go all the way across and shut down the port.”
Capt. Bill Baily, a pilot at the port, said the project is long overdue. Shoaling has reduced the depth to as little as 8 feet in places.
“This will give us much-needed relief in our channel,” Capt. Baily said during a recent meeting of the Morehead City Port Committee held at the Channel Marker Restaurant in Atlantic Beach.
Capt. Baily said the shoaling has caused delays for months for ships calling at the port as they are forced to wait until favorable tide conditions. Also, the problem requires careful navigation through a series of “S” turns around the shallow spots, he said.
Larger ships have been limited to daylight transits only and vessels leaving the port often cannot be loaded to capacity. Light-loading to reduce draft requirements cuts into profits, both for the port and its customers.
The project is also unusual in that its timing is outside the normal Nov. 15-May 1 environmental window for dredge projects here. That’s because most dredge projects place the sand removed on area beaches.
The environmental window is based on the turtle-nesting season and is the reason the spoils are to be dumped at a near-shore disposal area instead of spread on the beach.
“It was the only way we could do a contract this time of year. We’re trying something new,” Mr. Bullock said.
The project is also unusual in that is being funded with a combination of fiscal 2013 appropriations and supplemental funds earmarked for Hurricane Sandy relief projects.
Mr. Bullock said he was unsure of the funding breakdown, but hoped that there will be money remaining that can be combined later this year with FY 2014 appropriations to contract additional dredging here in November. All spoils from that project would go to beach nourishment.
The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a notice to mariners regarding the project. Until July 31, vessels transiting through the area between navigational markers red 24 and red 10 must notify the dredge operator on VHF channels 13 or 15 for guidance prior to passing.
Contact Mark Hibbs at 252-726-7081, ext. 229; email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter @markhibbs.