Environmental Issues Information

The Alabama State Port Authority wants to enlarge the Mobile Ship Channel to accommodate larger ships. Some worry the deeper ship channel will only exacerbate erosion problems on Dauphin Island.

A plan is afoot to widen and deepen the Mobile Ship Channel to allow larger ships carrying more cargo to make their way up Mobile Bay.

The proposed expansion raises several environmental issues that federal documents suggest will be addressed at a later date, once a preferred design for the channel has been selected. A $7.8 million study is underway now to examine the costs, benefits, and environmental and economic consequences of enlarging the channel. Meanwhile, a public meeting from 5:30 to 7:30 Thursday at Bayfront Pavillion in Daphne provides an opportunity for the public to ask questions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others.

Jimmy Lyons, director of the Alabama State Port Authority, says the expansion of the channel is vital to the future of Mobile as a port. With the widening of the Panama Canal last year, much larger ships - so called Super-Panamax ships - are calling on the port. But they cannot make it up Mobile Bay fully loaded because the channel is only 45-foot deep, and so the ships must sail with their holds only partially full. What's more, these new ships are so wide that two cannot pass through the ship channel at the same time, meaning the channel must be closed to other traffic as one of the giant vessels enters or leaves the port. This means ships are sometimes forced to idle in the Gulf for six or seven hours before they are allowed to begin the ten-hour journey up the bay.

The solution, docks officials say, is enlarging the channel, which would allow the ships to carry a full cargo thanks to increased depth. It would also do away with the one-way traffic problem, and end the prohibition against large ships travelling through the bay at night, thanks to a wider entrance at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Ultimately, the larger channel would allow many more ships to dock each year, making the port more attractive to shippers. Similar expansions have occurred at several U.S. ports to handle the new generation of larger ships.

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