Sunday, October 1, 2023

Former engineer sends warning to USACE on Wilmington harbor deepening

A former engineer at the United States Army Corps of Engineers is hoping to help his former employer realize the environmental impacts of deepening the Port of Wilmington in a recently penned letter. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — A former engineer at the United States Army Corps of Engineers is hoping to help his former employer realize the environmental impacts of deepening the Port of Wilmington in a recently penned letter. 

READ MORE: Wilmington harbor deepening enters early scoping period, community raises environmental concerns

Having worked in several USACE districts (albeit not Wilmington), Brayton Willis retired 13 years ago as a project engineer. He sent a letter, shared with Port City Daily, to the federal agency on June 29 suggesting the project combined with the effects of climate change might outweigh the economic benefit. 

Willis told the news outlet he felt compelled to use his knowledge, both as engineer and former secretary of the North Carolina NAACP, to assess the potential expansion.

The proposal is to deepen the channel from 42 feet to 47 feet and extend its entrance, located between Fort Caswell and Bald Head Island. The changes will allow for the accommodation of larger container ships to navigate the harbor, thus improving the economic capacity of the port and its competitive standing among others along the Atlantic coast. 

Exploring a potential expansion has been in the works since 2019, when the North Carolina State Ports Authority prepared a 203 report, reviewed by the assistant secretary of the Army, civil works. Congress authorized the project in 2020 on the condition that USACE undertake a review of the effects of the deepening as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

USACE’s Wilmington District is now in the process of developing an environmental impact statement and preparing a report that addresses the comments on the 203 report. As a first phase, USACE launched the project’s early scoping period and public comment in June. 

The road to a final report is scheduled to take three years and cost $8 million, split between USACE Wilmington District and the North Carolina State Ports Authority. 

From there, USACE is tasked with putting together a report on the economic and environmental impacts, alternatives to deepening the harbor, and a mitigation plan.

“The USACE [Environmental Operating Principles] rightly emphasize the need to preserve and protect critical natural resources, such as clean air, clean water, and healthy ecosystems for future generations,” Willis writes in his letter. “Unfortunately, for many years, the pursuit of economic prosperity has been at the expense of these resources.” 

Based on the 203 report, Willis urged USACE to fully consider the cumulative effects of another harbor dredge coupled with rising sea levels, stronger storms, decreased biodiversity and more. He feared these effects were not being given as much credence as the economic potential and need to compete with other port cities. 

The Wilmington harbor is one of two deep-water ports in North Carolina, the other located in Morehead City. Almost $15 billion is contributed to the state’s economy through the Port of Wilmington’s transportation of goods. According to the North Carolina State Ports Authority, every billion dollars represents 5,696 jobs in the state, with the agency supporting 88,200 jobs — all of which could increase with the harbor deepening.

But Willis argued a financial burden would also be placed on taxpayers to fund mitigation projects to combat flooding, storm damage and other problems associated with a warming planet. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels are expected to rise 10 to 18 inches by 2050, and 17 to 79 inches in the next hundred years — which local municipalities will have to address.

Willis pointed out Boston, his hometown, spends millions protecting infrastructure lining the harbor; the city just released a $1.2 billion resiliency plan to prepare it for the rising seas. 

At the State of the River event in June, Hannah Nelson, associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, explained one of the biggest impacts of deepening the harbor will be changes to the tidal range and salinity of Cape Fear River. By deepening the channel, the SELC estimates an increase in the mean water level, which in turn increases the water level and high and low tides. Nelson said these changes would be most visible in downtown Wilmington, which already has a more extreme tidal range than average. 

“Risk and uncertainty analysis is critical to understanding for our Congress and for our citizens, to understand what the trade-offs are; what are we gonna give up if we want to deepen Cape Fear? And what is that going to look like down the road?” Willis asked speaking with PCD.

USACE is currently analyzing feedback gleaned during public comment, including Willis’ statements, to help shape how it analyzes community consequences to be documented in the environmental impact statement. According to USACE spokesperson Jed Cayton, the agency will not respond to comments individually, but another feedback opportunity will be available after USACE delivers a draft statement in fall 2025. 

Part of USACE’s job is to explore alternatives to deepening the harbor; it’s unclear what USACE is looking at other than the proposed plan or no action.

However, Willis told Port City Daily he thinks USACE should analyze moving the port’s operations to Southport, or even Morehead City, as alternatives. 

“If, for instance, Southport was a reasonable alternative, then you would not have to dredge the 26 miles up the Cape Fear River, and potentially allow that river to start to heal itself,” Willis said. 

Relocating or building a new container terminal at Southport was actually explored by USACE in the 2000s, citing a 600-acre tract near the Sunny Point Ocean Terminal. According to the 203 report, USACE concluded doing so would not substantially reduce channel improvement costs because existing water depths are shallow. 

The overall cost for container terminal development at Southport was estimated to be $2.5 billion in 2008. In addition, the 2008 report noted the environmental impact of dredging a deepwater access channel to Southport could be substantially larger than the impact of deepening the existing channel to Wilmington.

Southport residents were also resistant to the port. A nonprofit called No Port Southport banded in 2008 to fight the project. Two years later, the North Carolina State Ports Authority put the project on hold due to waning political support both locally and in the General Assembly. It was also determined the best mode of action would be to improve the state’s existing ports rather than construct a new one. 

Still, Willis claimed the relocation option was not given adequate consideration. In his letter, he lists 12 benefits of relocation, including:

  • Decreased saltwater intrusion and upstream flooding
  • Ability to leverage the Sunny Point rail system
  • Reduce ship travel time and increase traffic
  • Reduce the risk of large container ship accidents in the Cape Fear River
  • Use the larger amount of land available in Brunswick County 

Cayton said the Wilmington district is currently in the process of developing reasonable alternatives to be evaluated in the EIS, though did not confirm whether a relocation to Southport was part of the analysis. Comments received during early scoping may be used to help refine the alternatives evaluated.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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