News Stories

Wilmington District Contributes Vital Role in Supporting North Carolina Ports

Published Sept. 6, 2018

Competition is fierce among Atlantic seaboard ports for commercial products from around the world that enter U.S. ports on container ships.  The North Carolina ports at Wilmington and Morehead City compete with other state’s ports to enhance North Carolina’s economy.  The competition means N.C. Ports leaders continually look for opportunities to improve their operations to attract more customers.  This past March for example, the Port of Wilmington added two neo-Panamax cranes and four post-Panamax container cranes to accommodate ships that pass through the Panama Canal enroute to North Carolina. 

   According to N.C. Ports officials, the ports in Wilmington and Morehead City, plus inland terminals in Charlotte and Greensboro, link the state’s consumers, businesses and industry to world markets to attract new business and industry while receiving no direct taxpayer subsidy.  Port activities contribute statewide to 76,000 jobs and $700 million each year in state and local tax revenues.

   The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District adds to the overall operations of the Ports of Wilmington and Morehead City by conducting daily surveys of the federal channels that lead to the ports, and by periodic dredging to remove debris and sand formations called shoals that accumulate to help ensure safe passage of commercial vessels.

   “North Carolina Ports relies on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep its channels accessible for vessels to safely and efficiently navigate to the Port of Wilmington and the Port of Morehead City,” said N.C. Ports Director Paul Cozza.  “North Carolina’s ports are strategically located on the East Coast and are important freight gateways for moving goods into and out of the southeastern United States. As both ports continue to grow at a record-setting pace it is extremely important that vessels are able to safely navigate to our ports to help meet our growing customer demand.”

   The survey vessels SWART and SANDERSON that are berthed at the District’s Engineer Repair Yard across from the Port of Wilmington operate nearly every day by providing sectional surveying.  The surveys are analyzed and then posted the next business day on the Wilmington District’s website where N.C. Ports officials can monitor the channels at both ports.      

   “Our vessels get surveys of various sections of the channel over a period of a few days,” said Wilmington District Geospatial Survey Section Chief Adam Faircloth.  “It takes about a month for the vessels to survey the entire federal channel. That is from the Anchorage Turning Basin past the Cape Fear memorial Bridge to Bald Head Shoals where the Cape Fear River flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The length is just more than 38 nautical miles.”

   Throughout the year, the Wilmington District contracts dredges to remove material from the federal channels at both ports.  The Wilmington Harbor project maintains an authorized 42 to 44-foot deep channel that require improvements to address potential navigation hazards and/or inefficiencies.  

    “There are certain sections of the project that really need attention in order for vessels to reach the Port of Wilmington safely,” said Chief of Civil Works Programs and Project Management Bob Keistler. “The entrance channel that leads from the Atlantic Ocean near Bald Head Island is subject to rapid and persistent shoaling and can hamper navigation under typical and tidal conditions. The Port of Wilmington relies on us to keep that section of the channel navigable as well as the entire channel so it doesn’t slow down shipments that need to reach the port up river.”

     At Morehead City, Keistler said keeping the channel at its authorized depths is challenging, especially those areas where it’s vulnerable to shoaling during rough weather conditions.  The channel extends 10 nautical miles from the Morehead City Harbor to range A which is the main buoy that identifies the beginning of the channel. The authorized project depth there is 47 feet at mean low water, and leads to the east leg that has an authorized depth of 45 feet, which continues to the shipping terminal at the port.  At the military load out terminal, the west and northwest leg is 35 feet deep.  The Wilmington District maintains a survey office at the Port of Morehead City where the survey vessels BEAUFORT and WALT gather data for project depths.  Like in Wilmington, technicians analyze that data, then upload it to the District’s website. 

   The Wilmington District’s role in helping to maintain the federal channels directly impacts the expansion of the ports as a key part of the state’s 25-year vision for North Carolina.  N.C. Ports officials said that includes providing access for the Panamax vessels, expanding access to the ports inland by developing intermodal train service at the Port of Wilmington, and pursuing opportunities to develop intermodal facilities along the I-95 corridor to improve the movement of goods through North Carolina and along the East Coast.

   Port officials say demand for access to the Wilmington Harbor is growing as North Carolina strengthens its position as a freight gateway. In order to keep pace with demand and open new opportunities, Port of Wilmington leaders want to enhance its navigational channel to allow deep draft vessels to efficiently navigate to the Port.  They say a more efficient channel would modernize the Port, attract more import and export business’s,  mitigate East Coast congestion, and  North Carolina Ports would become an even stronger player in this competitive landscape, thereby supporting the economies of Wilmington, New Hanover County, eastern North Carolina and the entire state.