Federal funds finally make good on dredging project

  • Federal dollars are funding a more than $4.3 million dredging project at the Port of Fernandina that will result in depths that will allow larger ships to visit the facility. JOHN SCHAFFNER/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
    Federal dollars are funding a more than $4.3 million dredging project at the Port of Fernandina that will result in depths that will allow larger ships to visit the facility. JOHN SCHAFFNER/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

U.S. Fourth District Congressman John Rutherford visited the Port of Fernandina last Thursday to observe and discuss long-awaited federally funded dredging work being done to deepen the turning area at the port with Worldwide Terminals Fernandina CEO Christopher Ragucci and members of the Ocean Highway and Port Authority board.

Worldwide is the port operator and Ragucci also serves as port director.

“Our Northeast Florida community can take a lot of pride in the growth we are seeing at the Port of Fernandina,” Rutherford told the News-Leader in an email following the event. “Last year I was proud to support its designation as part of the federal Marine Highway program, and now I am thrilled to see the recent $6.55 million federal investment in dredging the channel and turning basin.”

Rutherford, who pushed for the federal funding of the project, explained, “Once completed, this work will allow ships and cargo to move more easily through the Port and help further grow the flow of commerce and jobs throughout the region. I appreciate the hard work of the Port officials, the industry partners, and the Army Corps of Engineers for making sure that this project is completed on budget and on time.”

Beau Corbett, a project manager in the Jacksonville Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the News-Leader, “The original estimated cost for the project, which included administrative costs as well as the dredging contract, was $6.55 million. Through competition for the contract, we were able to get the cost of the actual dredging project down to $4,317,000, but there are other associated costs.”

The contract was approved and funded Sept. 16 and will take about 30 days to complete, with an expected completion date in mid-November.

“We did our job,” Corbett added. “We set the bar and got the job done, saving the taxpayers money.”

The dredging contract was awarded to Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company LLC.

“This is a really fine port,” Corbett said. “The only problem was the depth of the turning area, which this dredging will correct.” He said this is the first time the dredging has been done in 20 years.

OHPA Chairman Danny Fullwood, who attended the event with Vice Chairman Mike Cole, told the News-Leader that the dredging project was originally proposed in 2000 – the last time the channel was dredged – but it didn’t happen until now.

“I call this maintenance and dredging of the channel historic,” Ragucci told the News-Leader. “Nobody was
pressing them to address. (It) wasn’t until Congressman Rutherford got involved. He found the funding and that is why I wanted him to come to the port Thursday and view the work in progress.”

Ragucci explained that the depth of the turning area would be a minimum of 36 feet at mean low tide. He said the new depth in conjunction with 6-foot tides would provide access to the port for large ships that require 40 feet of depth when loaded. Worldwide Terminals recently dredged the channel at the docking berths to 40 feet plus 2 feet. Those large ships will come in on high tide.

Ragucci said the turning basin is not the only part of this overall project. “It covers from the ocean buoy and the port,” he said. The port’s dock is 1,200 lineal feet long. The turning basin goes 800 feet out from the dock.”

He said two incidents occurred in 2018 and 2019 when large tankers had to offload some of their cargo elsewhere before coming to the Port of Fernandina.

“This is the capstone that will allow this port to handle ships of the size it was designed to handle,” Ragucci stated. He said this dredging should be good for at least another five years.

In 1945, Congress approved the 800-foot-wide turning basin and shifting the channel line 50 feet northwesterly. In 1950, a 32-foot channel was authorized but subsequently inactivated. The USACE was said to have returned to the Fernandina Harbor project definition in the 1945 Rivers and Harbors Act, but the Corps failed to maintain even the 28-foot depth.

A March 1962 survey showed that the inner harbor had a controlling depth of only 23 feet, while in the area of the Rayonier wharf to Lanceford Creek the controlling depth was only 13.5 feet. By 1966, the controlling depths were 34 feet in the 5 miles of the outer harbor and 35 feet in the 2-mile stretch of inner harbor.

In 1957, the “outer harbor” through Cumberland Sound was deepened to 34 feet as part of a waterway leading through the mouth of the St. Marys River Intracoastal Waterway west of Cumberland Island to what was then the Kings Bay Army Terminal and later the Kings Bay Submarine Base. In October 1966, the Fernandina Harbor Project was transferred from Savannah, Ga. to the USACE Jacksonville District.

In 2000, the USACE issued a document called “Maintenance Dredging, Fernandina Harbor, Nassau County, Florida,” in which the Jacksonville District “propose(d) to continue conducting routine maintenance dredging of Fernandina Harbor.” It said, “Approximately 300,000 cubic yards of sediment, resulting from shoaling, will be removed from the harbor’s entrance channel on an annual basis.”

But, according to a February 2019 News-Leader article, “The maintenance dredging referred to became the U.S. Navy’s project that puts sand on the beach. The historic, ongoing ‘Fernandina
Harbor’ project morphed from dredging Fernandina’s riverside to renourishing Fernandina’s beachside.”

“According to a 2000 USACE Jacksonville District Post Disposal Summary Report, ‘The harbor’s inner channel and turning basin will also require dredging every 5 to 10 years,’” the article pointed out. “The historic Fernandina Harbor inner harbor continues to silt. So much so, that in 2018 a huge ship, touted by new port operator Worldwide Terminals Fernandina as one of the largest ever to dock at the port, had to offload cargo in Houston first.”

Now, two decades later, the dredging work is finally being done, despite the timetable recommended by the USACE report.

VB-10,000 crane rumor debunked

Ragucci also debunked a rumor that a failing anchor was keeping the massive VB-10,000 crane tied up in Fernandina Beach rather than being moved to a site in Brunswick, Ga. area for the recovery/salvage operations of the auto transport cargo ship Golden Ray, which capsized and caught fire in September 2019.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with the (VB-10,000),” Ragucci told the News-Leader. He said he had checked with the owners of what he described as “the largest heavy-lift vessel ever built in the U.S. It can lift up to 7,500 tons.”

“The problem has been having issues in Brunswick providing proper anchorage for the vessel at the work site to do the work,” Ragucci added. “They are presently driving pilings at the site to anchor the machine.”

Ragucci added that he expects the VB-10,000 will be leaving Fernandina Beach “in a couple of weeks, depending on the weather and whether storms make the ocean too rough for transporting it there.”

But he said that he expects the vessel may return to the Port of Fernandina for safe harbor from time to time if weather at the recovery site becomes bad. “There is no place up there for safe harbor for the VB-10,000,” he said.