State Legislators Voice Opinions On Port Project

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Oct 26, 2020
State legislators representing Southeastern North Carolina are voicing opinions on the N.C. Ports harbor deepening project, which is still awaiting federal approvals.

Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), along with Sens. Jim Davis (R-Macon) and Tom McInnis (R-Richmond), recently renewed their support for the Wilmington Harbor Navigational Improvement Project, according to a news release.

The senators expressed concern over a letter sent to N.C. Port's Executive Director Paul Cozza, about Sen. Harper Peterson's (D-New Hanover) May 20 letter to politicians in Washington, D.C., "attempting to delay the project," stated the release.

On Monday, Peterson said he doesn't wish to delay the project but would like to see the plan to deepen the Wilmington Harbor go through the appropriate environmental processes, such as the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), first, before getting the go-ahead.

"Everything I've asked in the letter of May 20 was considered or it was in line with the intentions of the U.S. [Army] Corps [of Engineers]," Peterson said. 

The project is still under federal review, and the Corps is waiting for the project to be authorized, said Emily Winget, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

"This project does have to meet Congress approval before it is slated for construction. Once the feasibility report is authorized, it will go through the NEPA process; then we would have to award a contract to begin construction. Currently, USACE has no role with the project as it has not been authorized or appropriated for as a federal USACE project," she said.

The timeline for the project receiving federal funding is not known and is up to Congress, she said. Additionally, if the project does not get included in this year's Water Resource Development Act (WRDA), it will be at least two more years because the funding is up for consideration every two years, she said.

"We get notified (by Congress through the WRDA bill, which is public information) when Congress authorizes and appropriates the project," she said.

A transportation topic for several years now, N.C. Ports' Wilmington Harbor Navigational Improvement Project aims to deepen the Cape Fear River, which leads to the Port of Wilmington, to allow larger, heavier vessels to reach the port. 

The project, which is still in its development, seeks to deepen the channel to 47 feet, from the current 42-foot depth. On top of ushering larger cargo ships involved in U.S. East Coast-Asia trade to move through the Cape Fear River, the WHNIP could attract more import and export business, and boost job growth, according to N.C. Ports.

The project is aiming for completion in 2027, according to the news release from Rabon's office.

The N.C. State Ports Authority, also known as N.C. Ports, conducted the Section 203 study to determine the feasibility of improvements to the estimated $750-million federal navigation project at the Wilmington Harbor.

As for the reasoning of the timing of the release, Rabon said Monday that he was not aware of the May 20 letter until a couple of weeks ago. 

"This just flies in the face of everything we have done over the last decade because until just a few years ago North Carolina was the only state on the East Coast that did not have a dedicated revenue source for its port, and it really put us behind," Rabon said. "We have been behind for decades ... and the current legislature started funding that to the tune of about $34 to $45 million a year to ramp up our ports so that we could be more business competitive."

"The Port of Wilmington is the lifeblood to Southeastern North Carolina and to business growth and commerce statewide," he added.

Davis and McInnis are chairmen of the Senate Committee on Transportation, and Rabon represents a portion of New Hanover County. The three legislators wish to see the project move "full steam ahead," according to the release. 

"Sen. Peterson's May letter essentially invites Congress with open arms to increase the regulatory burden for the project at a time when North Carolina should be focusing on supporting projects that will help rebuild the economy," stated the release.

“The Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project will be a boon to New Hanover County and our coast. It would put us on par with other Southeastern ports and cement North Carolina’s status as a business-friendly state," Rabon said in the release. “It’s unfortunate that others would try to delay this vital project and implement additional bureaucratic red tape.”

Rabon said he sent the notice out last week backed by the other senators to assure officials in Washington, D.C., that it was not the intent of the entire legislature to pose any delay on the project.

"The intent of the legislature was to move forward on the harbor project and to work hand-in-hand, follow the rules, the regulations, and the law," Rabon said Monday.   

Peterson said Monday, "I'm not trying to delay the [project], just trying to follow the correct procedure ... And I'm not trying to create bureaucratic red tape. I mean, this is a big federal project.

"I would be happy to support this project, but it needs to follow procedure," Peterson said. "I appreciate the ports' desire to grow; it grows our economy, it's good for the state, it's good for the region, it's good for the country. But we don't want to misstep by not considering all the implications."

The Southern Environmental Law Center wrote a letter in August to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James to urge the federal groups to complete a full and fair environmental review process under NEPA for the project. 

"While SELC and its partners have engaged in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ ('Corps') scoping process for the Project as well as its prematurely-ended stakeholder engagement process, we are unsure of how exactly the remaining environmental review process will unfold going forward, especially in light of the Trump administration’s recent executive order regarding accelerated environmental reviews for infrastructure projects," stated the letter.

In a reply letter, James said that should the project be authorized for construction by Congress, the unresolved issues contained within the project's initial review assessment would need to be addressed, "and the federal government will need to complete the associated environmental compliance activities and NEPA prior to construction."

He also said the process would be full and open, and would include additional opportunities for the public to be involved, James said.

Winget said in an email Monday that the project is "not being expedited due to President Trump’s June 4 Executive Order."

Pending further direction from Congress and James, the U.S. Army Corps will go through a "full and transparent NEPA process prior to construction," she said.
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