The Wando Welch Terminal at the Port of Charleston. Photo: SC Ports

Officials Mark Charleston Harbor Deepening Project Completion: ‘Deepest on the East Coast’

Mike Schuler
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December 6, 2022

After over a decade of planning and years of construction, Charleston Harbor in South Carolina is now the deepest harbor on the U.S. East Coast at 52 feet.

The completion of the roughly $580 million Charleston Harbor Deepening Project will allow the Port of Charleston to accommodate the biggest ships calling the East Coast with no restrictions, supporting South Carolina’s economy and Southeast supply chains.

Governor Henry McMaster and other state elected leaders, Congressional members, project partners, business and maritime community leaders, and South Carolina Ports officials gathered Tuesday to mark the successful completion of the project.

“It is a truly historical moment to be celebrating this monumental achievement. Charleston Harbor has been deepened to 52 feet,” said SC Ports President and CEO Barbara Melvin. “With the deepest harbor on the East Coast, we can efficiently work mega container ships at any tide. This investment will bring economic success to South Carolina for generations to come.”

The joint infrastructure project has been spearheaded by South Carolina Ports and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District, and fully funded with state and federal dollars. Deepening work began in 2018, thanks to $300 million the state set aside in 2012, followed by several infusions of federal funding. In 2019, Congress appropriated $138 million for the project, funding it to completion.

The Army Corps awarded five dredging contracts — three to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Corp., one to Norfolk Dredging Co. and one to Marinex Construction Inc. — who completed the work in four years.

Deepening began in the entrance channel and continued through the harbor up to SC Ports’ three container terminals. The entrance channel was deepened to 54 feet, up from 47 feet previously. A 52-foot depth was achieved in Charleston Harbor up to both Wando Welch Terminal and Leatherman Terminal, up the previous 45-foot depth, and a 48-foot depth was achieved between Leatherman Terminal and North Charleston Terminal. Turning basins were also widened in front of Wando Welch Terminal and Leatherman Terminal, allowing ships to easily pass one another and turn around without restrictions.

“Many great things come from humble beginnings, and Charleston Harbor is no exception,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Johannes, USACE, Charleston District, District Engineer and Commanding Officer. “In 1760, during the age of sail, the harbor averaged a depth of only 12 feet. Nearly 100 years later, in 1851, the harbor underwent its first deepening to 17 feet to accommodate larger, heavier steam vessels and the World’s first hydraulic dredge, the General Moultrie, was employed. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers working with our great partners has deepened the Charleston Harbor to a depth of 52 feet and the harbor can now safely accommodate the largest cargo ships in the world at any time, thus strengthening the economy of South Carolina and the nation.”

The Port of Charleston is one of the top ten busiest container ports in the United States, handling 2.75 million TEUs at in 2021 for its best calendar year in history.

The port is already putting its deeper harbor to good use, having handled the12,119 TEU-capacity MSC Rayshmi in September. With a draft of 48 feet and 11 inches upon arrival, the ship set the record as the deepest draft ship to ever call at the port.  

“South Carolina can now proudly say that we have the deepest harbor on the East Coast,” said Governor Henry McMaster. “The 52-foot depth gives South Carolina a major edge in recruiting new jobs and investment while announcing to the world that this is the place to do business. This was the epitome of a team effort, involving members of our federal delegation – led by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham – the General Assembly, and the Ports Authority leadership team.”

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