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How deepening the Panama Canal set off a fierce debate in Jacksonville

A number of port cities on the East Coast are taking steps to deepen their harbors, in an effort to attract bigger-than-ever cargo container ships expected to arrive as early as next year with the expansion of the Panama Canal. It's all sparked fierce debate in Jacksonville, Florida, as port officials there fight to remain competitive. NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    It's a typical, busy morning at the port in Jacksonville – Florida's most populous city. Vincent Cameron has worked on the docks here for 25 years.

  • VINCENT CAMERON:

    These boxes that are coming off these ships behind you have all types of cargo in them, and they go to all different destinations — from your Pier-1s, your Walmarts, your Targets, to your warehouses, to your factories, the paper mill, you name it.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    This massive port imports and exports some 8 million tons of cargo a year, worth around $33 billion dollars…generating almost $170 million in state and local taxes. The Jacksonville port – called Jaxport for short – is a mid-size port, ranking 37th out of the 99 biggest U.S. ports by cargo volume. But it's also one of the fastest growing U.S. ports for exporting.

    It ships more cars out of the U.S. than any other port in the country, and it's a major import hub for companies like Disney, Bacardi, Maxwell house, and Samsonite. The port is located just off the Atlantic Ocean on the St. Johns River. When cargo comes in…it's delivered quickly over three interstate highways even more freight train lines across the southeast United States.

  • VINCENT CAMERON:

    Jacksonville is a port city. You know, we derive our fruits from the labors that take place right here on these very docks.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Cameron, a third generation longshoreman, is one of nearly 10,000 people employed at the port…which supports thousands of jobs at local businesses, too.

  • VINCENT CAMERON:

    It's a big economic engine for the city of Jacksonville, and it needs to survive if the city is going to continue to thrive.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    To thrive in the global economy, Jaxport has spent tens of millions of dollars in the past decade to modernize and to compete with ports to the north, like Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. In 2009, the port completed a high-tech terminal with 275-foot tall cranes to reach across the decks of the largest ships that dock here.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    It installed state-of-the art technology to provide ships entering the port better navigational information. And to speed up cargo delivery… the port is now building a facility to transfer containers directly from ships onto freight trains. And the port's jumping into the business of servicing new ships powered by liquefied natural gas – a cleaner burning fuel than the fuel oil used by most cargo ships.

    But all of these innovations might not be enough for Jaxport to stay competitive, according Jaxport CEO Brian Taylor, who says the port now needs to be deepened by seven feet.

  • BRIAN TAYLOR:

    Deepening the port is to allow us to compete and handle the ships of the future that are going to be carrying the cargo to the east coast ports.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In the last two decades, the shipping industry has built bigger and bigger ships – tripling the capacity of the largest ones. Today the biggest ship today a quarter-mile long – longer than the empire state building is tall.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    As a result, the 101-year-old Panama Canal – which connects the pacific and Atlantic oceans – is expanding to accommodate the new ships, doubling its capacity by deepening and widening its channels. The project could be done as early as next year. A report by the Boston consulting group estimates that the Panama Canal expansion could lead to 10-percent of west coast ship traffic shifting to the east in the next five years. Ports up and down the eastern seaboard are spending billions to snag a share of that traffic. Jaxport's Taylor says his harbor needs to be deepened by seven feet…or else.

  • BRIAN TAYLOR:

    We will lose the opportunity to participate in the single biggest growth segment over the next 20 years.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Taylor says his 40-foot deep channel is already too shallow. It requires some large ships to carry less than a full load to avoid scraping the bottom. And that results in less revenue for the port.

  • BRIAN TAYLOR:

    So, if we do not deepen this port, I would expect to see the business that we've worked so hard to gain to gradually move north of here, and all those jobs that we've worked to gain will move there as well.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The thirteen-mile dredging project, simulated in this Jaxport video, has a big price tag – nearly $700 million. All of it is expected to come from the government. Last year, congress passed a 12-billion-dollar bill to improve the nation's ports. But so far, Jaxport hasn't seen any federal funding. Savannah and Charleston have; they move more cargo and got an earlier start on their expansion projects.

    The State of Florida has given some money, but nowhere near the amount needed. And local government hasn't come up with the funding, either. Opponents of the Jaxport dredging project say it just isn't worth the environmental risks, or the high cost.

  • DAVID JAFFEE:

    I don't think it's do or die for Jacksonville…

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    University of North Florida professor David Jaffee specializes in economic sociology and has studied the project. He says there are many other costs that haven't been included in the price tag, like further terminal upgrades and maintenance.

  • DAVID JAFFEE:

    I don't think it will yield the benefits that they've claimed, and I think the costs that they have estimated — are grossly underestimated. So when you put all that together, that doesn't even include the incalculable cost to the river itself. It's a project that it unnecessary and, in my view, would be a monumental waste of taxpayer dollars.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Jaffee points out that Jacksonville is already behind Savannah and Charleston, and he thinks the projected traffic through the Panama Canal won't be sufficient to justify so many east coast ports expanding capacity.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    He predicts many of the biggest ships will unload onto smaller ships in the Caribbean that will continue onto the U.S. – something called "transshipment." He argues Jacksonville should vie instead for that traffic.

  • DAVID JAFFEE:

    Rather than try to engage in what I would regard as a kind of destructive form of competition, my proposal would be that Jaxport and Jacksonville focus on their strengths. And that is developing connections with trade and the movement of cargo in the Caribbean and Central and South America. That they can attract vessels which move large numbers of containers that actually can come in currently at the depth of the river.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    But some local business leaders disagree.

  • MARIE-CLAIRE ABERCROMBIE:

    Everything that you see here, we import through the port of Jacksonville.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Marie-Claire Abercombie manages east coast distribution for Bedrosians, a company that supplies tiling for floors, bathrooms, and countertops.

  • MARIE-CLAIRE ABERCROMBIE:

    If it's slate, we are importing it out of India or Pakistan. If it's granite, it's imported out of Brazil. If it's marble, it's coming out of China or Spain or Italy.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Abercrombie says business is booming, but she sometimes has problems importing heavy freight from her factory in china, because space on ships that can reach Jacksonville can be tight. She says the ability to dock bigger ships would help.

  • MARIE-CLAIRE ABERCROMBIE:

    That will be great for us, because it means our product can get here quicker. Larger ships means that we can bring in more products, we can, you know, spread the cost of that transportation over more products, and again, keep the cost to the consumer lower.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The potential environmental effects of deepening the harbor are also a point of controversy. Lisa Rinaman leads the local advocacy group St. John's Riverkeeper. She says digging up the river floor could harm endangered species like manatees and sea turtles…and could disrupt the delicate mix of salt and fresh water in the river.

  • LISA RINAMAN:

    In addition to the salt water coming in, you have erosion and sedimentation and all of these changes to this complex, delicate ecosystem causes major problems with water quality, as well as impact to our fisheries.

    The increase in salt water does damage to our wetlands and submerged grasses. Those are the kidneys of the St. Johns River, and so, when you lose those systems, all of a sudden you start having more water quality problems.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – which would oversee the dredging project – has a plan to mitigate possible damage to the environment.

    But Rinaman says it's not enough. St. Johns Riverkeeper plans to sue the Army Corps to add more protections for wetlands, the shoreline and wildlife. But dredging supporters say environmental concerns shouldn't outweigh economic ones.

  • MARIE-CLAIRE ABERCROMBIE:

    Yes. The environmentalists, I get it. We have to save our planet. But before we can save the animals, I think we also have to look at the people. How are we taking care of the people? e can save the fish and we can save the turtles, but if the economy goes down, and these environmentalists are not going to have a job to fight for or to save the turtles.

  • LISA RINAMAN:

    You know, a lot of times people try to put the environment against the economy and we don't see it that way, because this community, this state thrives on our healthy natural resources. Healthy rivers drive healthy economies, and so, there has to be that balance.

  • VINCENT CAMERON:

    Yeah, there is no perfect product when it comes to man intervening with the environment.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Longshoreman Vincent Cameron says he understands the concerns on both sides….and thinks they can be resolved.

  • VINCENT CAMERON:

    We're better now than we were many years ago, as far as the bright minds that are coming to the table to make this a reality. And I think that we can manage this together.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Port officials say they will continue to lobby for government funding … and are even considering dredging a shorter length of the river to make the project more affordable. In the meantime … all sides in Jacksonville continue to wait.

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