U.S. Rep. Tom Rice says everything he hears from the Army Corps of Engineers about the Georgetown port is positive and he is hoping for a decision any day about federal funds for dredging.

Officials in the Corps’ Charleston District said last week they had no funds for Georgetown in their budget and they worried that dredging the harbor to a depth of 27 feet before customers are on board at the port would be a waste of state and county money.

Rice said Wednesday that Georgetown County voters’ approval of a one-cent sales tax that designates $6 million for harbor dredging supports his case that a viable port will bring industry to his district. The state has proposed spending $18 million and the State Ports Authority $5 million to dredge at Georgetown in addition to the county’s $6 million. Rice is trying to get the Corps of Engineers to pay $4 million of the project cost, estimated at $33 million two years ago. Charleston District officials said the cost to dredge the Georgetown harbor will be higher because silt continues to accumulate.

“There’s a little room for adjustment,” Rice said of federal funding for Georgetown. “I think the state and county have certainly shown their belief in the merit of the project.”

Rice said Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Infrastructure Committee, was impressed with Georgetown’s argument for funding. “We feel good about it,” Rice said, “but they haven’t made their decision yet. They’ve gone past the time they told us it would take.”

The Corps may have been working off the assumption that Congress would pass an appropriations measure by Sept. 30, a source familiar with the process said. Funding might depend on when Congress passes an appropriations bill. That could come before the present bill expires Dec. 11 or could be delayed until next year by a continuing resolution. House leadership has said it wants to pass an appropriations bill before Dec. 11, but some members of Congress want to delay until Republicans take control of the Senate. The Corps of Engineers usually presents its work plan within 45 days of approval of an appropriations bill, the source said.

Rice said that he sees “meritorious infrastructure” is an investment rather than an expense. His top priority for his district is Interstate 73 into Myrtle Beach with the port of Georgetown second. He wouldn’t talk about prospective port customers but a document he prepared for the Corps outlined the economic benefits.

“It’s no secret,” Rice said, “that Georgetown Steel brings in ore from the Caribbean through Wilmington.” ArcelorMittal says it would use the port to ship 150,000 tons of scrap, alloys and other raw materials a year. Dredging of the port is a key step in securing the long-term viability of ArcelorMittal Georgetown, the document says.

The port can also attract commodity businesses shipping wood products, petcoke, raw materials and finished products related to the steel industry, salt, aggregate, coal and other bulk and break-bulk cargo, the document said. A Coastal Carolina University study in 2010 said that every 500,000 tons annually can be expected to yield 42 new jobs, $1.3 million in new local household income and $4.4 million in total local economic output. Estimates suggest that potential new customers could generate 3 million tons in new activity at the port, the study said. With one-time dredging, the port will have the ability to generate enough new activity to receive dredging funds, the study added.

Maintenance dredging is a sticking point, according to Brandan Scully, chief of navigation for the Corps of Engineers’ Charleston District. He said the port needs a plan to come up with $6 million a year to maintain the harbor’s depth. Southeastern ports compete for funding, he said.

Scully suggested that county development officials consider dredging to depths for current and potential port customers rather than returning the entire harbor to 27 feet. Present port clients include Holcim US, a cement company; the Hiller Group, supplier of aviation fuel; Metglas, a Conway company that makes brazing foils; and Diproinduca, a company that provides raw materials to the iron and steel industry by converting industrial waste and by-products into assets. Officials in Washington have never raised concerns about Georgetown’s customers or the market it seeks, according to a source familiar with the process.

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer