South Carolina moves to capitalize on Panama Canal expansion to grow shipping

First Charleston-bound large ship to traverse the locks to arrive this week.

A rendering shows an aerial view of the Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal, a 280-acre project to convert an old naval station into shipping. The first 170-acre phase is expected to open in 2019.   Photo courtesy the South Carolina Ports Authority

Expansions to the Panama Canal, which officially opened on June 26, have already spurred growth throughout South Carolina’s ports even before the first ship arrived, a Ports Authority spokesperson stated.

“We’re very excited,” Erin Dhand, of the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA), told Palmetto Business Daily.

Experts have already estimated that the canal would balance the volume of shipping traffic somewhat evenly between West Coast ports and the East Coast. The West Coast has long held a roughly 10 percentage point dominance over the East Coast as a percentage of all shipping volume to U.S. ports. This was due, in part, to the ease of access for ships coming from Asia destined for the U.S.

“We receive 11 vessels each week that were too big to cross the (original) Panama Canal — those coming to us from Asia were utilizing the Suez Canal,” Dhand said. “We’re already seeing big ships in Charleston, so we’ve had to be ready.”

Dhand said the first ship across the expanded canal destined for Charleston, which would have been too large to traverse the old canal, will arrive into port on Thursday, something the Trident CEO Council is anxiously awaiting

"The Panama Canal expansion will be an exciting boon for the Port of Charleston, without which South Carolina's economic engine would not exist," Tom Leonard, executive director of the Trident CEO Council, said. "You may not realize it, but the port is responsible for almost 11 percent of all jobs in the Palmetto State, and it pumps more than $45 billion per year into the Charleston metro region's economy. The Panama Canal expansion is good for the port, which means it's certainly good for our region and our state."

Charleston was poised to take on much of the new traffic, thanks to a naturally 45-foot-deep harbor — the deepest on the East Coast. Currently, fully loaded ships can only come into and out of the port at high tide. Dhand said that a project to deepen the harbor to 52 feet, which will eliminate the tidal restriction, is expected to begin next year.

In addition to the deepening, Charleston is slated to convert a former navy base into a new terminal. The first phase of the 280-acre terminal, dubbed the Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal, is expected to open in 2019 and will boost port capacity by more than 50 percent.

All of this, Dhand emphasized, will not only help the area capitalize on the increasing number of ships transitioning from West Coast ports to East Coast ports, but also help them accommodate larger ships. To date, the largest ship Charleston’s port had accommodated was 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), or roughly 5,000 semi truck loads. With projects lined up to strengthen wharfs, deepen harbors and build new terminals, she said the SCPA anticipates accepting ships up to 14,000 TEUs.

“Those things are there not only to accommodate the big ships that were already coming before the expansion,” she said. “But now that the expansion has happened, we expect to see more big ships here and more frequently.”

Roughly 4,900 new jobs announced in 2014 from the manufacturing sector in the state would make use of the ports, according to an economic impact study conducted by University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business in conjunction with the SCPA and published last year. The same report noted that shipping directly employed more than 8,300 people, accounting for bringing roughly  $53 billion into the state’s economy, or nearly 10 percent of its GDP.

“It’s incredibly significant to the livelihood of the people of South Carolina,” Dhand said. “In terms of economic development and jobs recruiting, South Carolina is very fortunate to have a port, because we play a key role in that.”

In addition to the port at Charleston, the SCPA has also made gains by constructing a new inland port at Greer. Though many attribute that port to a large BMW manufacturing facility in nearby Greenville, the project has actually grown to spur manufacturing among a number of industries in the region.

“BMW was interested in being a launch customer for us, so on day one we had a customer,” Dhand said. “But they’re now less than half of the cargo volume at that facility. It has been very successful, very popular for our customers.”

The success of that project is expected to translate to another inland port project at Dilland, near Florence. The economic impact analysis found that, outside of Charleston, inland ports drew the most traffic, due to the number of manufacturers located near the Tennessee and North Carolina borders.

“We’re in an ideal place because there’s so much population growth in the southeast,” Dhand said. “As the population grows, those people are consumers and that drives import volume. Even though trade has slowed a little bit, from a global scale, the southeast ports are going to grow faster than other ports.”

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