New depth restrictions were announced Wednesday for cargo ships that call at the Morehead City port, and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones said Congress should cut spending in Afghanistan to free up money to deepen the sand-clogged navigation channel.
“We continue to find more and more money to send overseas to build roads and bridges in Afghanistan, but we can’t find money to take care of infrastructure here in America – whether it’s roads or waterways,” Jones said in a telephone interview from his Washington office. “It’s getting out of hand.”
A state board that oversees navigation safety at the port announced the new draft restriction, the second in five weeks. Citing new soundings that show more shoaling in the Beaufort Inlet channel, the Morehead City Navigation & Pilotage Commission said cargo ships will be limited to a keel depth of 34 feet – and allowed at that depth only during daylight and at high tide.
“We are trying our best to get additional dredging in here so we can deepen the draft, so ships can come in and out,” said R. Hunter Chadwick Jr. of Beaufort, the commission chairman. “They can’t make money unless they can come in fully loaded and leave fully loaded.”
PotashCorp Aurora, the Morehead City port’s biggest customer, says it is losing more than $2 million a month because the draft restrictions force it to put lighter loads on its ships. Other shippers also complain about losses they blame on the channel shoaling.
Andrew Midgett Jr., president of the Morehead City Pilots Association, said the channel has deteriorated fast since the last draft restriction was set at 35 feet in early December.
“We’ve had a lot of low pressures that have come up the coast,” Midgett said. “The swell gets pretty big, and it moves a lot of sand.”
Jones, a Republican who represents North Carolina’s 3rd District, said Congress has increased overall funding since 2011 for dredging and other maintenance work in the nation’s waterways. The share of funding marked for the Morehead City state port is determined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“This is not really a congressional decision,” Jones said. “It’s a formula that’s used by the government.”
The Corps of Engineers plans to spend most of its 2015 allocation for Morehead City on a contract for limited dredging, expected to start in February. Shippers and Corps officials agree that the dredging contract, expected to be worth about $4 million, will provide some relief but will not restore the channel to its authorized depth of 45 feet.
“I think the state of North Carolina is going to have to put money up, if the state is going to have two ports and have an economic engine,” Midgett said. “Right now we’re at 34 feet, and we don’t know how long that’s going to last. It could last a month – and hopefully, it does.”