Wilmington Port Looks to Lure Bigger Ships

Attendees speak with State Ports Authority officials Aug. 8 in Wilmington during an information session on plans to improve navigation for larger ships in the Cape Fear River. Photo: Jennifer Allen

WILMINGTON – The North Carolina State Ports Authority is asking the public to weigh in on a feasibility study on proposed “enhancements” to the Wilmington harbor, but no specific proposals on how to make the port more accessible to larger and more fully laden ships were presented last week during a meeting at the Coastline Conference and Event Center.

Bethany Welch, the authority’s communications manager, said port officials are exploring various options to allow deep-draft vessels to efficiently navigate to the port.

“A more efficient channel would modernize the port, attract more import and export business, help mitigate East Coast congestion, and help North Carolina ports become an even stronger player in this competitive landscape,” she told Coastal Review Online in a follow-up interview. “The goal of the feasibility study will help N.C. ports assess the impact of these improvements and help map the future of the Wilmington Harbor.”

Changing vessel operations, widening and deepening the 26-mile-long channel beyond its current 42-foot mean lower low water depth, “softening” bends in the river and finding beneficial uses of dredge spoils are alternatives that may be considered, according to materials on display at the informal meeting held to provide the public information and gather input about the study. The public also can email comments to port officials at WH203study@ncports.com throughout the duration of the project.

More than 20 attended the meeting, including ports authority representatives and contractors for the project who were available for the public’s questions and concerns. Displayed in a crescent shape, about a dozen posters were on easels with bullet points of information that provided details on the feasibility study to be funded by the port authority’s operating revenues. No federal money is to be used for the study.

The state port in Wilmington is 26 miles from the ocean on the Cape Fear River. Photo: North Carolina Ports Authority

Among the posters on display during the meeting was “Study Purpose and Need,” which read that the purpose is “To evaluate alternative harbor improvements that will allow efficient use of the harbor by containerships calling on the U.S. East Coast,” and the need is “The fleet containerships is increasing in size to reduce marine transport costs. Existing channel conditions cannot accommodate these larger vessels efficiently. Carriers will shift cargo to deeper, more efficient ports causing longer truck hauls and increasing total transportation costs.”

The contractor for the study is the Washington, D.C.-area-based water resources project planning and development firm David Miller and Associates Inc., in conjunction with environmental consulting firm Dial Cordy and Associates Inc. and coastal engineering firm Moffat and Nichol.

Welch said that the meeting marked the beginning of the feasibility study, which is to look at any potential environmental effects, such as degraded water quality, saltwater intrusion into freshwater bodies and aquifers and effects on wildlife and how to mitigate the damage.

“We look to conclude the study in the spring of 2019 which is when it will ideally be submitted to the assistant secretary of the Army for review and approval,” Welch said. “Once it’s with the Army Corps of Engineers, a decision for the study should be issued by 2021. As for the project, there is no current timeline, because the study will help determine what that project could look like.” The Corps is responsible for maintaining the federal channel.

Welch said that the ports authority prides itself on being a good neighbor.

“It’s important that as we grow and look to make improvements, the community is involved in the process every step of the way, which is why we host public meetings for projects like the Wilmington Harbor Navigational Improvement Project Section 203 Study,” she said.

Welch added that the authority has an “open-door policy” and encouraged the public to call or stop by and ask questions to learn more about the project. Also, there is a page on the website for the project that is to be routinely updated.

Environmental Concerns

Attending the event was Michael Rice of Southport with the nonprofit Save the Cape Inc. He said, “we need to know about this deepening project because it seems foolish and reckless. There’s an aquifer at risk. What’s to be gained?”

Rice was referring to the Castle Hayne Aquifer, the groundwater source for much of eastern North Carolina’s municipal drinking water supplies.

The Castle Hayne Aquifer, which extends northward to New Jersey, yields large volumes of water in eastern North Carolina, where it consists of limestone. Map: U.S. Geological Survey

“Our aquifer is very important now with the GenX issue in the Cape Fear River,” Rice continued. “We need the Castle Hayne aquifer, it’s a very significant water source. It’s about 26-28 feet (below the river bottom) where it crosses the river. They want to go to 52 feet, so they’re going to scrape the top of it off.”

From that, two things will happen, Rice said. “The fresh water in the aquifer will leak out into the Cape Fear River, or if the pressure balance changes, the salt water will go into the aquifer. It does seem reckless but it also seems that the consultants that they’ve hired are very capable and will bring out all of these issues. So we’re confident that the report will be something people will work with and a well-done report will produce the right conclusions on how to go forward or not.”

Frank Yelverton, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, also attended. He was there to learn more about the project, which he said the nonprofit organization is watching to make sure the river is protected.

Kit Adcock, mayor pro tempore of the Village of Bald Head Island, has been a permanent resident of the exclusive community at the mouth of the Cape Fear River since 2006, but has owned property there since 1990.

“I have been watching the ports growth and expansion carefully for years,” she said.

Adcock is concerned that whatever the ports authority is proposing could affect Bald Head Island, which built a terminal groin in 2016 in an effort to combat chronic erosion some locals have blamed on the nearby ship channel.

“This could hurt us dramatically. We don’t know. The studies haven’t been done. We’re looking forward to seeing the studies, and we’re making those who are doing the studies aware of what the risks are,” Adcock said. She added that the risks are on the south and west beaches, where there’s mostly rental properties, the more expensive homes that generate significant property tax, occupancy proceeds and contribute to sales tax revenues for the county.

“We want to keep an eye on this, we want to be at the table,” she said, adding that they don’t want to be contrarians but want to work together for what’s in everyone’s best interest.

Tainting the Castle Hayne aquifer that serves Bald Head Island is another concern, Adcock explained. The study needs to look at how the project would affect the aquifer and the island’s drinking water, she said, noting that saltwater intrusion could affect not just drinking water but also the flora, including the maritime forest.

Port officials say the study will consider effects on marine resources, protected species, water quality, fish and wildlife resources, cultural resources, essential fish habitat, socio-economics resources, coastal processes, aesthetics and recreation and other effects identified through public involvement and agency coordination. According to the public notice published June 12, the feasibility study is to comply with the Corps’ guidelines and the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

The study is to be performed under Section 203 of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, stating, “A non-federal interest may on its own undertake a feasibility study of a proposed harbor or inland harbor project and submit it to the Secretary of the Army.”

About the Author

Jennifer Allen

Born and raised in Swansboro, Jennifer Allen graduated from Appalachian State University in 2002 and picked up a second degree from UNC-Charlotte the following year. She joined the staff of the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City in 2005 and completed her master's at UNC-Wilmington in 2008. Jenn spent nine years writing and editing at the News-Times before joining the staff at the Town of Beaufort in 2014, where she served as public information officer and town clerk. On June 1, 2017, Jenn came aboard as assistant editor for Coastal Review Online. She has also written for Our State Magazine and other regional and statewide publications. She lives in Morehead City with her fiancé and their pups, Z, Gus and Willa.