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NC Ports Approves Study to Improve Large Vessel Access to Wilmington

Wilmington study to improve large vessel access to the port
The plan is to deepen the Wilmington navigation channel (NC Ports)

Published Apr 1, 2021 5:53 PM by The Maritime Executive

The North Carolina State Ports Authority which manages operations at the Port of Wilmington, North Carolina is moving forward with a program to enhance access to the port by deepening the navigational channel. The project, which was first proposed a few years ago, was included in the 2020 Water Resources and Development Act.

As a next step in the project, the port authority this week signed a letter of intent indicating its sponsorship for the research phase of the project. The port indicated its intent to cover a portion of the costs during the next phase working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps will proceed to seek federal funding to undertake the necessary studies before the project can proceed.

To keep pace with demand and open new opportunities, the Port of Wilmington is seeking to enhance its navigational channel to allow deep-draft vessels to efficiently navigate to the port. The preferred plan would deepen the Wilmington Navigational Harbor from its current 42-foot depth to 47 feet, allowing it to accommodate ultra-large container vessels, and enabling carriers to continue to utilize Wilmington as a port-of-call for their U.S. East Coast-Asia services. Port officials have said that they believe a more efficient channel would modernize the port, attract more import and export business, and help mitigate congestion along the U.S. East Coast.

The next phase of the project would be a detailed study conducted by the Army Corps under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that would review the impact on the environment and determine if there were suitable alternatives with a lesser environmental impact. Among the specific elements to be considered would be how to avoid impacts to groundwater resources and existing waterfront infrastructure. The study also explores impacts to recreational boaters and commercial fishing vessels using the channel and any impact on natural and historic resources.

Currently, more than 320,000 TEU move through the Port of Wilmington each year. The port has recently invested in several improvements including the completion of four major projects aimed at improving access for 14,000 TEU container ships. Earlier in 2020, they completed phase two of a turning basin expansion project, opened 2,600 contiguous feet of container berth space, and completed an air draft improvement project to increase the air draft over the Cape Fear River. Three neo-Panamax cranes were also added to the port in 2018 and 2019.

As a result of these improvements, Wilmington welcomed its largest containership to date in October 2020. The 146,700 dwt Yang Ming Warranty began making calls at the port. The vessel has a capacity of 14,220 TEU with a maximum draft of 45 feet. 

The North Carolina State Ports Authority has preliminarily estimated the cost of completing the deepening project at over $800 million. The goal is to complete the studies over the next year, but based on the requirements it would likely take years before construction could begin.