Port’s Environmental Study Awaits Funding

A cargo ship departs the North Carolina Port of Wilmington. Photo: State Ports Authority

The North Carolina Ports Authority’s proposed project to deepen and widen the Wilmington harbor was authorized under a federal omnibus bill signed into law last month.

Now the Army Corps of Engineers’ must receive appropriations to study the project’s impacts, complete an environmental impact statement of the project, and fulfill the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process.

Emily Winget, a public affairs specialist with the Corps’ Wilmington District, said in an email that the agency does not yet have a time frame for when a draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, will be available for review.

“First, we need to receive a budget for and receive appropriations for an investigation,” Winget said. “After, we must complete the required feasibility report and integrated NEPA documents for Congress. Then we must budget for and receive appropriations for design, engineering, and construction. This project must meet NEPA requirements. Although quite a bit of work has been done to support the NEPA process, we’re still in early stages of developing the draft EIS. A schedule will be developed following receipt of appropriations.”

Various environmental groups, a Brunswick County Beach town and the Brunswick County Branch of the NAACP have raised concerns about whether the proposed project will be fully vetted through the NEPA process.

The project was the first in the United States to be funneled through former President Trump’s amended Section 203 of the Water Resources Development Act, which allows ports to kick off projects more expeditiously by paying for their own feasibility and environmental studies, rather than waiting for federal funding.

Nonfederal-sponsored projects, such as those led by states or state agencies like the ports authority, have to get federal authorization before moving forward and, in order to receive federal funds, projects must complete the NEPA process, which is headed by the Corps of Engineers.

NEPA includes soliciting public comments.

Up to this point, critics of the plan argue that the public has had little opportunity to engage in a conversation with ports officials about the proposed project.

“The port has continued to be totally secretive and not forthcoming with anything,” said Bill Cary, an attorney representing the Village of Bald Head Island. “Every time this has come up and I’ve talked to the Corps they have been pretty adamant that a full, vigorous NEPA review will happen and it will be fuller than the last time because of the way that the project is described.”

Within the past 15 years, more than $47 million has been spent on a multitude of erosion mitigation projects on Bald Head Island’s shores where, village officials maintain, sand loss has been exacerbated since 2000 when the Cape Fear River’s navigation channel was deepened, widened and realigned closer to the island’s west and south beaches.

The Brunswick County Branch of the NAACP has raised concerns about the proposed project’s potential affects to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, environmental justice communities, as well as the overall environment of the Cape Fear River and adjoining waterways.

How larger vessels traveling more than 20 miles up the Cape Fear River to the Wilmington port and back may affect shoreline erosion has to be assessed and reviewed under NEPA, Cary said.

“NEPA includes an assessment of the purpose and need and looking at all the direct impacts,” he said. “I think there’s some real questions about the purpose and need. The ships that they can attract are already coming. They increased the turning basin and now those ships are coming.”

The ports’ draft feasibility study calls for deepening the main shipping channel through the Cape Fear River from 42 feet to 47 feet and the ocean entrance to the river from 44 feet to 47 feet and widening the channel in multiple areas.

Those new depths and widths would allow the Wilmington port to remain competitive with other East Coast ports by making room for larger container ships coming to the East Coast from Asia, according to the state ports authority.

The changes would accommodate vessels that can carry 14,000 20-by-8-foot shipping containers, which can be transported through the Panama Canal since its expansion in 2016.

Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James in 2019 kicked back the ports authority’s initial draft study, saying it needed significant revisions before he would pass along his recommendation to Congress for approval.

James later approved an updated study.

In a Jan. 5 news release, the Corps’ Wilmington District noted it will have to receive funding “to address modifications or conditions the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) considers appropriate and prepare a final assessment that addresses concerns, recommendations, and conditions identified in the Secretary’s prior review assessment.”

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on the part of the ports authority to get this project where it needs to be if it goes forward,” said Ramona McGee, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Chapel Hill office.

The law center, on behalf of Audubon North Carolina, Cape Fear River Watch, Defenders of Wildlife, North Carolina Coastal Federation and North Carolina Wildlife Federation, submitted letters to the Corps in October and November last year raising concerns about the federal agency’s request of the state to eliminate the environmental window for hopper dredging channels at the ports.

The state Division of Coastal Management recently approved the Corps’ request, removing the hopper dredge environmental window for the next three years.

Attorneys argue in those letters that the Corps’ draft environmental assessment examining the potential impacts of dredging within the environmental window, Dec. 1-April 15, does not address additional impacts of working in a wider, deeper channel proposed in the port project.

Dredging in the new, proposed footprint will be addressed in a future study, Winget said.

“The focus of the Deep Draft EA is maintenance of the currently authorized outer portions of Wilmington Harbor and Morehead City Harbor,” she said in an email. “The (Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project) will involve new work dredging and those impacts will be addressed in the WHNIP EIS.”

The Wilmington harbor project received authorization under the Water Resources Development Act, which was included in a massive, $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package signed Trump signed into law Dec. 27, 2020.

The omnibus spending bill also included the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, which appropriates $53 million to Wilmington District’s operations and maintenance projects. Those projects include maintenance dredging of several deep and shallow draft navigation harbors and channels as well as funding for flood risk management, hydropower operations, environmental stewardship, and recreation at the John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir in Virginia and North Carolina.

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.