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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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Jonathan Serrie

Atlanta, GA

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Mega-Ships May Bring Deep Water to Savannah

January 28, 2011 - 7:15 AM | by: Jonathan Serrie

At more than 900 feet long and 125 feet wide, the APL President Truman and CMA CGM Parsifal can only reach Georgia’s Port of Savannah during high tide. The arrival of these two ships today is a slow and delicate procedure, as they travel from the mouth of the Savannah River to the port 24 miles upstream.

But deliveries by the latest generation of super-sized container ships could become routine if state officials are able to secure funding and approval for a $550 to $600 million dollar dredging project to deepen the Savannah River from its current 42 feet to as much as 48 feet.

A project to enlarge the Panama Canal by 2014 is fueling the proposed changes in Savannah and other U.S. Ports. Once complete, the canal will be able to handle huge ships with cargo capacities of up to 13,000 TEUs. A TEU, or twenty-foot equivalent unit, represents the capacity of a standard 20 by 8 foot metal shipping container that can be loaded onto a truck or train. The Panama Canal’s current dimensions generally accommodate ships with capacities under 5,000 TEUs.

With their increased capacity, larger vessels reduce the cost of shipping for big-box retailers, such as The Home Depot, which is headquartered in Atlanta.

“We continuously want to lower our prices and continue to bring value to our customers through lower prices,” said Mark Holifield, Home Depot’s senior vice president for global supply chain. “Lowering our cost of logistics allows us to do that.”

Georgia State officials describe the project as an “investment” that will keep Georgia’s deepwater ports and inland barge terminals competitive and protect the estimated 295 thousand jobs that depend on them, as well as creating new jobs.

“Our projections are that this port, over the next 15 years, is going to grow to handling in excess of 6 million TEUs a year — so, more than double what we are currently handling,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. “I think it’s reasonable to assume that the job impact will similarly track that growth we’re seeing in container activity.”

“Investment is in the eyes of the beholder. You know it when you see it,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “And the Port of Savannah is an investment. It’s important to the United States of America.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, which would conduct the dredging, traditionally relies on earmarks to fund such projects. But the new Republican leadership in Congress has pledged not to use earmarks, because of the procedure’s association with pork-barrel spending.

“Now that doesn’t mean just stop the trains, that you can’t move forward with any specific project,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.). “That is what we are trying to work through right now. It is a very, very challenging process.”

Savannah now has to compete for money with other East Coast ports, including Charleston, S.C. and Jacksonville, Fla., which are considering similar expansions. Officials in this Republican-leaning state are having to reach across the aisle as they solicit federal funding from the Obama administration.

“We would hope and expect that if the country wants to regain its competitiveness globally for products that we produce, that the president’s going to see it very important to put the funding that the Corps expects to spend next year in his budget,” Foltz said.

Funding isn’t the only hurdle for the project. Environmentalists are concerned that dredging will allow salt water to flow further upstream, damaging fragile wetlands.

“Saline water is heavier than fresh water, so it goes under the fresh water like a wedge,” said Steve Willis of the Sierra Club. “They estimate that after this dredging, if they do dredge it to 48 feet, that wedge will penetrate so far that it will damage most of the the Savannah Wildlife Refuge, and it’ll eventually corrupt or pollute the intakes for Savannah’s water supply.”

According to Georgia port officials, about one-third of the project’s budget would be dedicated to mitigating the environmental impact by purchasing unprotected wetlands for preservation, releasing young fish into the river and installing new equipment to replenish dissolved oxygen levels.

“The Corps has done an extremely good job at both identifying the environmental impacts and addressing the environmental impacts through a very complete and detailed environmental mitigation plan,” Foltz said.

According to Foltz, the process of deepening the Savannah River would take 36 to 48 months. He said dredging could begin almost immediately, provided it receives approval from the Army Corps of Engineers in December and state and federal funding.

Photo Gallery
The Port of Savannah
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  • The Port of Savannah
  • On the Savannah River
  • The Port of Savannah
  • The Port of Savannah
  • The Port of Savannah
  • The Port of Savannah
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