The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
A bill passed by Congress Wednesday means construction of the proposed Sabine-Neches Waterway channel improvement project will soon be underway.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act authorized construction of the project, which would deepen the Sabine-Neches Waterway from 40 feet to 48 feet. The added depth will accommodate larger ships that will travel through the Panama Canal, allowing them to reach local ports and critical industry along the waterway.
“This is probably one of the biggest economic development projects for us in years,” Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for our future economic viability, success and prosperity.”
Assessment on the proposed deepening began in 1998 with a series of studies to determine the feasibility of the project, as well as the economic and environmental impact. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed a chief’s report in July 2011, and the Assistant Secretary of the Army approved transmission of the project to Congress two months later. The bill passed the U.S. Senate in May.
Paul Beard, chairman of the Sabine-Neches Navigation District, said that when the channel was last deepened to its present 40 feet in 1962, ships were far smaller than the ones that pass through the waters today.
“The ships have grown exponentially over time, and we’re looking at even larger ships,” Beard said. “We want to have our ship channel ready to accommodate those larger vessels.”
In addition to accommodating larger ships, the project will enable tankers to enter the channel carrying even more cargo. Currently, those vessels — some of which draft 60 feet — anchor far offshore, where their goods are then transferred to smaller ships. This process, assistant general manager Clayton Henderson said, is called “lightering.”
“It’s really inefficient,” Henderson said. “But the deepening project will reduce that effort, and that ship will be able to sail right through the channel and to the terminal.”
The House version of the bill will now move to a conference with the Senate version. Once Congress reconciles the differences between the two, the final bill will be sent to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it into public law.
Construction on the project will likely begin in late 2015 or early 2016, and is likely to last anywhere from seven to 12 years, Henderson said. Costs for the federal government are estimated at almost $800 million, with the Sabine-Neches Navigation District responsible for the remaining $350 million. The district is exploring several options for funding, among them a low-cost long-term loan with the Texas Department of Transportation.
The impact for the taxpayers of Jefferson County stands to be significant. There are 128,000 jobs directly connected with the waterway, with an additional 78,000 to be added as a result of the project. The Sabine-Neches Waterway is the nation’s top crude oil import channel and the fourth largest waterway, and is responsible for 11 percent of the gasoline refined east of the Rocky Mountains. Approximately 71,000 vessels cross the 63-mile channel each year.
“Crude oil is the lifeblood of our county, and we take it very seriously,” Henderson said. “This project propels us further into the 21st century.”
Beard is particularly happy to see the project gaining some ground. He has been involved since assessments began 15 years ago.
“I just turned 80 years old in August, and I sure wanted to live long enough to see this thing come to fruition,” he said. “And now it’s here.”