The plan to widen a five-mile stretch of Mobile’s federal shipping channel has been scrapped for the moment in the wake of a growing opposition to the project moving forward without a full environmental impact study.
The proposed project would have added a passing lane for wider-bodied ships coming in and out of the Mobile harbor. The issue was intended to make the port more efficient and address specific safety concerns.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the federal sponsor of the shipping channel and was conducting a basic Environmental Assessment to determine the effects of widening the section of the channel before the project was halted.
In spite of that, several groups and individuals expressed concern about the expansion causing additional erosion to the west end of Dauphin Island and suggested a full EIS would be needed to accurately determine its effect.
The Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA), the local sponsor of the channel, has previously said such a study would delay the project and cost almost as much as the project itself.
In the background of all the debate, a series of letters of were written to the Corps by several residents of Dauphin Island and the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association. Those letters eventually pressured the Corps and the ASPA to request a change in the scope of the project and include a full EIS.
Despite what would seem like a victory for the island, the change and proposed study could eventually mean the expansion project might grow to include the entire 36-mile shipping channel.
On June 27, the Corps released a letter from Col. Jon Chytka to several of the residents. It stated the Corps had received a formal request from the ASPA to expand the project to include the “studying the feasibility of widening and deepening the channel to its full authorized depth and width.”
“When you get involved in these EIS studies, they start looking at the potential use and the benefits that would accrue,” said Jimmy Lyons, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority. “We’ve already had a couple of requests for deepening the channel to 50 feet. Some of the shipyards want to bring in bigger oil rigs for repair work and they can’t pass through our 45-foot channel.”
The tricky part comes in financing such an operation. As it is set up currently, costs are split between the Corps and the ASPA 75 percent to 25 percent. That is applied to most operations of a federal shipping channel and was also the original cost structure for the $15 million five-mile expansion project.
However, the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 requires the cost structure change to a 50-50 split for federal shipping channels deeper than 50 feet.
Prior to the most recent update to the WRDA, an extension to a 50-foot depth would have also required the ASPA to begin paying for the yearly maintenance dredging of the channel – a bill that has cost up to $30 million in the past.
“The bill that passed this time keeps dredging as a Corps responsibility for channels going down to 50 feet, and that certainly makes going deeper a little more palatable,” Lyons said. “It’s still a big number. Deepening the channel would cost around a $500 million and that’s a real rough number because they haven’t even gotten into the study.”
Lyons said that cost savings was certainly a factor in the ASPA’s considerations as were the requests for an EIS.
Glendon Coffee, a biologist who worked for the Corps for more than 30 years, has been very vocal in his opposition to the lack of a full EIS.
“It’s looking like they were incrementally trying to implement a wider and deeper channel with the minimum amount of public knowledge,” Coffee said. “One reason they wanted (the expansion) piece by piece is because they wouldn’t have to look at the entire scope of impact.”
Lyons dismissed the claims saying he would “definitely have preferred to move ahead with the five-mile expansion project.”
“We were sincerely going after a passing lane because it’s a problem we encounter multiple times every week,” Lyons said. “There are so many more large ships in our traffic.”
The last full EIS dealing with an expansion of the Mobile Shipping Channel was performed in 1978. Coffee said a full study would take time and provide many more opportunities for public input than a basic environmental assessment.
Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said no one on the island is against the Port Authority, adding that he understands its importance to both Mobile and the state.
“All along, as they look forward to deepening and widening or improving and enhancing — I just really would like to see them incorporate a dredge disposal practice that is favorable to Dauphin Island and not harmful,” he said. “If they do expand the channel, then we have an opportunity to make sure it’s done in a way that doesn’t continue to harm the barrier islands.”
The ASPA still stands by a study conducted by the Corps in 2010 concluding the erosion over the past decades is the result of the nature of Dauphin Island and its exposure to strong storms over time — not the dredging of the Mobile shipping channel.
Despite the confidence, Lyons said the threat of another lengthy lawsuit also helped persuade the Port Authority to move forward with an EIS of the full expansion project.
Judith Adams, vice president of marketing for ASPA, said the opposition’s momentum was growing and that ‘put a lot of pressure on the Corps.’
“The Corps will tell you their [assessment] complied with the National Environmental Policy Act,” Adams said. “This was particular group on the Island and they have litigated before. The history is there.”
Lyons said he would “rather pay for the study than pay for lawyers.”
There’s not a set timeline for the Corps’ Environmental Impact Study, but it will have to be completed within three years.
Lyons said this type of study would be more extensive than the one originally undertaken by the Corps and would include a cost-benefit analysis, sedimentation studies and geotechnical work.
What the ASPA decides to do with the federal channel will be entirely contingent on the results of the EIS.
“We’ll have to see where the study takes us,” Lyons said. “We’d have to get a federal appropriation. Even if it’s deemed to be a worthy project with no environmental damage that can’t be mitigated, it still becomes a matter money.”
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