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South Carolina Ports laying groundwork for larger ships

Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal, with ‘the biggest cranes on the East Coast,’ readied for March opening

Larger container ships are on the horizon at the Port of Charleston.

The South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) said the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal (HLT), which will be able to handle container ships carrying 18,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), is on track for a March opening.

The completed first phase of the approximately 300-acre HLT will enable the Port of Charleston to handle an additional 700,000 TEUs annually. At full buildout by 2030, the three-berth terminal will double the SCPA’s current capability by adding 2.4 million TEUs of throughput capacity.

“One thing that’s unique about the terminal is that it will have the biggest cranes on the East Coast of the United States, with 169 feet of lift height. We’ll be the only terminal in the Southeast that can handle 18,000-TEU ships,” said SCPA President and CEO Jim Newsome.

The five ship-to-shore cranes are being fabricated by ZPMC in Shanghai. The first two are slated to arrive from China in September, with the three others following in October. Twenty-five hybrid rubber-tired gantry (RTG) cranes, which Newsome said are the most modern available, also currently are under construction. 

Chief Operating Officer Barbara Melvin said port expansion has been talked about since she joined the SCPA more than 20 years ago. “It’s so exciting to see the culmination of a lot of effort — a multidecade effort as a matter of fact.”

Melvin said the final concrete pour took place on the wharf at the end of July; terminal buildings and canopies are more than 50% complete; and runways are being installed for the RTGs. 

“Phase 1 of the Leatherman Terminal gives us the ability to handle four 14,000-TEU ships at one time,” she said during a video update on the project. 

Enhancements to the Wando Terminal at the Port of Charleston also will enable it to handle the biggest of ships calling the East Coast.

“Beginning about five years ago, we made some significant investments in the Wando Terminal. When this terminal opened, it was really designed to handle 3,000-, 4,000-, 5,000-TEU ships,” Melvin said. “As the ship sizes grew, we really needed to change the look of Wando Terminal and we have shored up the docks to where they can handle the cranes that are much larger, weigh much more, and amazingly we did all this renovation while we were still open. So we took out one berth at a time and we significantly enhanced our ability to handle big ships here at Wando.

“Wando Terminal is looking great and the harbor-deepening project, which will be complete by the middle of 2022, is really going well and we will have the deepest harbor on the East Coast,” she said.

Newsome said the deepening project will take the Charleston harbor to 52 feet and is part of the SCPA’s long-term vision.

“When we talk about the Leatherman Terminal, I think it’s important to realize that it’s taken a long time to realize this terminal. We actually started planning it in 2001. We filed a permit in 2003, we received that permit in 2007 and we’ll open Phase 1 of the terminal in March of 2021. So it’s a new terminal in one sense, but it’s really a terminal that’s long been on our radar screen here at the port,” he said. 

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Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.