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Port of Wilmington seeks to remain a player as Delaware River shipping markets increase

Delaware Public Media

The Port of Wilmington has a lot to be proud of. It's the nation's top importer of bananas. As part of the greater Delaware River port complex, it helps that system bring in almost all of the East Coast's oil. And it's got prime access to truck routes in and out of the Mid-Atlantic.

But the port has fallen behind on the upgrades it needs to stay competitive in the fast-changing shipping industry. Now the port, state, city, county and private partners are investing millions to try and stay afloat.

Port executive director Gene Bailey has been in the shipping business for 45 years.

"The changes I've seen are just unbelievable, with the expansion of the container-handling capabilities," Bailey says. "I think Wilmington and the state of Delaware can place itself in a position to handle additional vessels."

Credit Delaware Sea Grant
Delaware Sea Grant
Truck traffic from the Delaware River and Bay port complex in 1998.

The question is how to make it happen -- and lawmakers and lobbyists are weighing plenty of different answers.

Bailey says they need to compete with larger neighbors like Philadelphia and Camden in the Delaware River and Bay port complex. It's the fifth-largest in the country, handling 70 million tons of cargo a year.

Right now, Wilmington only traffics about 5 million of those, according to the Delaware Sea Grant. So to stay in the game:

"We would like to obviously put ourselves in a position to not only accommodate the customers we have, but to be able to grow with them and look for additional business," Bailey says.

Their biggest, longest-term customers are Dole and Chiquita -- as in banana. Bailey says container shipping is still their biggest market, but they also want to be able to handle more bulk cargo -- like the steel they already move.

"I think Wilmington and the state of Delaware can place itself in a position to handle additional vessels."

In 2013, the port got $10 million from the Department of Transportation to rehabilitate two nearly century-old shipping berths. They're also using state capital funds to buy two new cranes for the existing port. When they're installed in December, they'll handle bulk cargo and containers -- unique, "multi-discipline cranes," Bailey calls them.

But growing a modern port isn't as simple as adding commodities. The ships themselves are getting bigger and heavier, meaning they need deeper water.

"The biggest single event that drives a lot of the benefits for these ports, is the expansion of the Panama Canal, which is, I believe, scheduled to finish sometime this year," says U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Philadelphia spokesman Ed Voigt.

He's talking about ongoing work to dredge the Delaware River and Bay's main shipping channel from 40 feet deep down to 45. It's the new standard for ports to handle so-called post-Panamax ships -- the huge vessels that'll transit the revamped canal.

"To some people it doesn't seem like a huge difference, but it's more efficiency for oil [and] liquid cargo," he says. And "it's actually a pretty big benefit in terms of the container shipping, which is now the predominant type of shipping that benefits from this project."

Delaware River is the last East Coast port complex that isn't yet dredged to 45 feet -- but the project should be finished next year.

"The future of the Port of Wilmington is on the Delaware River -- somewhere."

Still, it's not a silver bullet for the Port of Wilmington. The port is bordered to the north by the Christina River -- a narrow offshoot of the Delaware that snakes in through city. The Christina is only 38 feet deep, and Voigt says it would need an impractical amount of dredging to reach a deeper depth.

So while the port could expand along that waterway, Voigt says it wouldn't be able to handle those deeper-draft ships coming up the Delaware.

"The future of the Port of Wilmington is on the Delaware River -- somewhere," he says.


The specifics of that somewhere partially come down to people like Ward Guilday. He's the president of the Delaware River and Bay Marine Pilots Association. ("We climb aboard ships in all weathers and all times of day and we navigate ships up to the ports," he says.)

Guilday says there is some flexibility for vessels to come onto the Christina from the Delaware -- like at high or flood tides, which can add about five feet of water.

"So she'll still be close to the bottom, but we'll get 'em in there," he says of a hypothetical deep-draft vessel making that tricky left turn. "Dole and the car carriers all come in there at pretty deep drafts."

"She'll still be close to the bottom, but we'll get 'em in there."

And he notes that other proposed developments -- like at the Riveredge Industrial Park, just south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge -- face similar obstacles. Ships would have to stray out of the deepest part of Delaware River to reach that shore.

Either way, the port's Gene Bailey says they want to maximize their current infrastructure first, then secure investors for other sites. (The Diamond State Port Company owns the current port. Locations like Riveredge would be separate.)

Still, people like state Rep. Charles Potter (D-Wilmington North) are highly interested in those other sites. He says they should try to do it all: a port authority in Claymont, a container terminal at Riveredge, and room for more traffic at the existing port.

"The state of Delaware is going to be a revenue-generator. We don't have anything else that's really on board that would bring us 17,000 jobs, and this is it," Potter says. "So we need to get it done now, quickly, and do it the right way."

But beyond the longshoremen to drive trucks and operate container cranes, he doesn't have many specifics on where those jobs would come from.

"If we don't take advantage of this small window of opportunity, we could be in a lot of trouble."

Still, there won't be any new jobs if the expansion isn't done soon. As the state and the city work on environmental studies and show potential sites to new investors, they're also keeping an eye on the competition.

"If we don't take advantage of this small window of opportunity and not be first, and allow New Jersey, Philadelphia, all the surrounding states to build before us, we could be in a lot of trouble," Potter says.

That's also because the new traffic is already starting to arrive -- the River and Bay port complex had one of its busiest shipping years of the decade in 2015. It was thanks in part to more Sunoco petroleum coming from Sunoco's Marcus Hook complex in Pennsylvania, just over the Delaware state line.

Some of that oil is piped through the Port of Wilmington, for distribution to Wawa at a private terminal next door. It's also loaded onto ships on the river -- but right now, most of those don't come through Wilmington.

A Sunoco spokesman says in an email they support the port expansion and the channel dredging. He says it'll give them more options to handle larger ships in the future.


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