Friday, April 19, 2024

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

USACE is exploring the feasibility of deepening the Wilmington harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet, as well as expanding the entrance channel, located between Fort Caswell and Bald Head Island. (Port City Daily/file photo)

WILMINGTON — The years-long process analyzing the impact of deepening the Wilmington harbor and expanding its entrance is underway.

READ MORE: USACE reverses course again to use Masonboro Inlet for WB dredge under emergency exception

The United States Army Corps of Engineers held its first public feedback event on Tuesday. The federal agency is charged with delivering a report and environmental impact statement on the proposed plan. USACE will also explore alternatives to the project and their impacts in comparison to the harbor deepening. 

The path to the report is scheduled to take three years and cost $8 million, split between USACE Wilmington District and the North Carolina State Ports Authority. The latter submitted its own feasibility study for the expansion in 2019; based on that, Congress authorized the project in 2020 on the condition that the economic, environmental impacts and alternatives be explored, and a mitigation plan be submitted. 

The current proposal is to deepen the channel from 42 feet to 47 feet and expand the entrance channel, located between Fort Caswell and Bald Head Island. The changes will allow for the accommodation of larger container ships to navigate the harbor. 

The harbor was last deepened from 2000 to 2013 from 38 feet. Since then, container ships increased in size, allowing more cargo to be carried in fewer trips. USACE data shows ship size has increased, along with the drafts they pull, calling for deeper channels. 

The project would allow the port to keep pace with several ports along the East Coast, many of whom have upgraded their harbors in recent years, and maintain its presence as a port-of-call for major containership services. To be able to accommodate growing fleets, the Port of Wilmington deepening could maintain efficiency in operation and attract more import and export business. 

The Wilmington harbor is one of two deep-water ports in North Carolina, the other located in Morehead City. Almost $13 billion is contributed to the state’s economy through the Port of Wilmington’s transportation of goods, while Morehead City’s contributions are around $2.5 billion. 

According to the North Carolina Ports Authority, every billion dollars represents 5,696 jobs in the state, with the agency supporting 87,700 jobs — all of which could increase with the expansion. 

As acknowledged by the USACE team at Tuesday’s meeting, along with others in the community, the upgrade has to be levied with any negative environmental, economic, cultural and social impacts. Some were discussed at Cape Fear River Watch’s State of the River event earlier this month. 

“At some point, we need to pause in that competition and we need to ask ourselves: Do we truly need a deep water port along every harbor in the southeast?” Hannah Nelson, associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said at the event. 

Bringing in larger ships with more containers could increase on-land vehicular traffic, as well as industrial development along the river’s banks — land also vied by housing projects. 

She explained one of the biggest impacts 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 tide. Nelson said these changes would be most visible in downtown Wilmington. 

The city is located 36 feet above sea level and prone to flooding during storms. According to a study from University of Central Florida researcher and professor Thomas Wahl, the City of Wilmington had the most extreme tidal range out of all other locations studied. 

Per the study, the city’s tidal range has increased by approximately 0.38 meters since 1936 mainly due to extensive dredging, channel deepening, and associated reduction of hydraulic drag. 

The increase in mean water level, and therefore flooding, caused by another channel deepening will also exacerbate the effects of climate change. According to data from NOAA, sea levels are expected to rise 10 to 18 inches by 2050, and 17 to 79 inches in the next hundred years.

The deepening and expansion of the harbor entrance to allow for easier ship navigation could also affect the salinity of the water. When saltwater and freshwater meet, as it does in the Wilmington harbor, it creates an estuary, an ecologically diverse area for marine life. 

As Nelson explained, the deepening would disrupt 1,000 acres of soft-bottom habitat and convert it to deep-water habitat — a drastic change for the plants and animals accustomed to the harbor’s current state. As a result, animals may have to migrate, and the marine life that can’t move or adjust might cease to exist in the area — and that’s if they survive the dredge. 

Pulling up sand from the channel — which, yes, could be spit out on nearby beaches for renourishment — runs the risk of catching animals along the way. This could be especially detrimental to endangered species that use the harbor, such as loggerhead sea turtles.  

The public has already begun to submit concerns to USACE. 

Thomas Scheetz, a project engineer, said he was anxious about exacerbating erosion along the Southport waterfront.

“The increased ship traffic has & will negatively impact the marsh habitat, cause erosion to the shoreline, & potentially damage private & public bulkheads,” Scheetz wrote on the project’s website

An unidentified commenter affiliated with UNCW’s Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography said impacts from the previous deepening should be analyzed, something the commenter said he could not find evidence of. 

“The thing that concerns me about the harbor deepening is that there does not seem to be a plan to continuously monitor the river and its environment before, during and after the project,” the commenter wrote. “If you decide the deepening will have a given set of impacts, what will be done to measure them and verify (or not) your projections?”

According to the proposed project timeline, USACE will gather public comment until June 30 as it completes its scoping period. From there, the agency will develop alternatives and file its notice of intent in fall of 2024, where another 30-day public comment period will open. 

USACE will use the feedback to refine alternatives, complete an impact analysis and draft an environmental impact statement, to be revealed in the fall or winter of 2025. A 45-day public comment period will commence thereafter, before USACE will submit its final report in the fall of 2026. 

A final decision on the project will be made by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works). 

[Ed. Note: A previous version of this article attributed a public comment to Kurt Scheetz; the article has been updated to reflect his son, Thomas Scheetz, made the comment. PCD regrets the error.]

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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