Booming Sunbelt ports look for room to expand

The Sunbelt's ports, like a lot of other businesses here, are booming. Between 1970 and 1977, for example, Charleston doubled and Savannah nearly doubled the tons of goods imported or exported through their ports, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

But ports in the South, as most in the nation, are jamming up.

For the near future, this is good news: More shipping means more imports (cheaper goods, and greater variety for Americans), and more exports (more jobs for Americans making the goods). But in the long run, some serious problems lie ahead, port officials warn.

In spite of major expansion projects under way in many of the nation's ports, especially in the industrially booming Sunbelt states, many ports are struggling to keep up with the demand for more loading and unloading facilities. And many demands for deeper channels for the world's fleet of increasingly bigger ships are not being met.

Environmental objections are the primary cause of delays in constructing new facilities and digging deeper shipping channels, port officials say. Such delays can lead to lost trade opportunities, they warn.

But, environmental officials counter, coastline development and the dumping of highly polluted mud dredged from shipping channels are legitimate public concerns.

If the federal government is serious about wanting to significantly increase its foreign trade, "then we can't piddle along," says W. Don Welch, president-elect of the South Atlantic and Caribbean Ports Authority.

Mr. Welch, who is also executive director of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, cites a 39-month delay in new facilities that will double Charleston's port capacity. Federal and state environmental agencies, local environmentalists, and some area residents objected to proposed use of marshlands and additional development of the coastline. Compromise agreements were finally worked out and construction is now under way.

But some delays are even longer, says Mr. Welch. Fifteen years after Congress authorized a study of the need for deeper channels in the Charleston port, the US Army Corps of Engineers is still studying the idea, he complains. Mr. Welch proposes that an economic-impact statement and an environmental-impact statement be prepared for major port or channel projects and that a compromise be reached between the demands of each.

Officials of the port of Jacksonville, Fla., through which pass more imported cars now than any other US port, are seeking state permission to bypass Florida environmental regulations in dumping toxic mud dredged from a 22-mile channel.

Not only is dredging needed to maintain the 38-foot depth for current shipping use, but a deeper channel would attract even more ships, says John Mackroth, managing director of the Jacksonville Port Authority.

But the dredged mud contains mercury, PCB, oils, and grease, says an official with the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation. State officials do not want the mud dumped where toxic substances can leak into marshland or estuaries, affecting wildlife and water quality. Dumping farther inland or at sea are alternative possibilities under study.

Despite these obstacles, a spot check with several Southeastern ports, including Charleston and Savannah, shows the upward trend is continuing.

Port construction is booming, too.

In addition to Charleston doubling its capacity by construction under way, construction is scheduled to begin in June that will double Miami's port capacity. And Savannah is building a fourth berth for ships handling containerized cargo.

But other problems besides environmental objections are delaying even further expansion.

Federal funds for dredging and enlarging shipping channels in the Savannah port have been "frozen," says the port's assistant executive director, Robert Goethe. Some business is being lost as a result, he says. And the port of Gulfport, Miss., now adding to its dockside facilities, would expand further if the state would offer financial assistance. "A little money would do us a lot of good," says Joe Cunningham, executive director of the Mississippi State Port Authority. But Mississippi, by most measures, is the poorest state in the union.

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