CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The Port of Charleston is the fourth busiest port on the East coast. It brings in $45 billion every year and employs more than 260,000 workers across South Carolina.
But ships are getting bigger, and if the port is not dredged soon, Senator Lindsey Graham says the port could die.
"The deepest ship now during right circumstance has a five-foot cushion from keel to the sand bottom of the harbor and five feet to the Ravenel bridge," said Graham.
Graham says the Obama administration funded dredging studies for all the other East coast ports, but not Charleston. And once the Panama Canal is widened in 2014, even larger ships will be coming to the East coast.
Right now, the harbor is 45 feet deep at low tide, so many ships can only come in during high tide, and once the larger ships come, they could need 52 feet of depth.
State Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome says the port needs to dredge to a level where the ships don't have to depend on high tide to move in and out.
"You don't want to depend on a tide, because you have to make an appointment to go through the Panama Canal and you don't want to wait if you miss your appointment. Shipping lines expect unfettered access to a port because that's what they have throughout the world, Asia and Europe, and they want that here," said Newsome.
Since other East coast ports like Savannah received funding, they're further along in the dredging process. The Port of Charleston has finished the first step with the Corp of Engineers, but can't take the next step to start the dredging study without the federal funding.
"The study is a 3-to-4 year enterprise, $400,000 is the first chunk of money," said Graham.
Then comes design, construction and maintenance. In all it's close to a $300 million project, but Graham says considering the money the port brings in, it's well worth it.
Dredging could take 10 years, but Newsome says as long as we move now we'll survive, since Charleston has advantages, like a wider harbor.
"We have a wide harbor, we have a short transit where the pilots get on the boat. It's two hours here, where elsewhere its four to five hours," said Newsome.
The wide harbor also allows for two-way traffic, saving time and money for shipping companies.
"Ships can come in and leave at the same time. In Savannah, one ship comes in, you wait for it to come in, and one goes out," said Graham.
Graham says at this point the funding would have to be acquired through an earmark. He realizes for many "earmark" is a dirty word, and agrees that earmarks have been abused in the past, but he says this time transparency is there and the need is there too.
Graham says he hopes to add the dredging study funding to the first appropriate funding bill that comes through.