Deeper channel for Port of Iberia a step closer to reality

The Port of Iberia’s executive director and others are celebrating a U.S. Senate bill that in a few years could lead to a deeper channel to the Gulf of Mexico.

The 50-mile dredging project for decades has been on the must-have list for oil and gas fabricators that need deeper water to transport bigger platforms, said Roy Pontiff, executive director of the port, on Tuesday.

“This is extremely significant,” Pontiff said.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., announced Tuesday that the breakthrough that should lead to a deeper port channel came through changing the language of the Water Resources and Development Act, called the water infrastructure bill, which authorizes projects for the Corps of Engineers.

The language, rewritten after months of debate, now states the channel-deepening project — titled the Acadiana Gulf of Mexico Access Channel — will employ hydraulic dredging and not the more expensive conventional way of cranes digging with dredging buckets, Landrieu said.

A 2007 water infrastructure bill also contained language for a project that would cut the port’s channel-to-the-Gulf depths from around 13 feet to 16 feet or deeper. But the bill specified the channel would be dredged the conventional way. That method would have required the dredged mud to be handled twice due to the wider parts of the channel, and pushed the cost from the original estimation of $160 million to more than $400 million. The Corps balked at the price and refused to fund the project, which in 2010 was suspended.

Landrieu said the 2014 water infrastructure bill is the first since 2007, and it represents the first chance in seven years to redefine the dredging method and officially place the project back on the U.S. government’s to-do list.

“This common-sense fix included in the final water infrastructure bill will allow us to invest federal funds to deepen the Port of Iberia that is critical for Acadiana’s continued economic growth,” Landrieu said in a statement.

Pontiff said the port will now ask the Corps to look again at the project. He said a Corps review would take at least 12 months, but he doesn’t expect the cost to again climb higher than $160 million.

“It’s going to be at least a year, a year and a half, before we see any construction money,” Pontiff said.

When the money does come, he said, he expects it to be doled out in multiyear appropriations.

Matthew Lehner, an aide for Landrieu in her Washington, D.C., office, said getting the project funded will take teamwork by many members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation.

“It’s going to take some serious leadership and efforts to secure the money that is tight around here these days,” he said.

Lehner also said environmental impact studies conducted and published in years past might have slipped by their expiration dates.

“We’re probably going to have to update some of the documentation that they had completed,” Lehner said.

According to a 2006 study, the Corps agreed that deepening the channel would enable port companies to build the big projects for the ultradeep waters of the Gulf. The study singled out Port of Iberia fabricators Dynamic Industries, which has two yards at the port, and Omega Natchiq.

The Corps said the companies were at a disadvantage to other fabricators sitting at other Gulf Coast ports with deeper cuts leading offshore.

The Corps said Gulf Island Fabricators, located near Houma, builds platforms and other oil and gas components that are transported in the 19-foot-deep Houma Navigational Canal. In Corpus Christi, Texas, fabricators Technip and Kiewit have access channels cut to depths of 45 feet.