Port of Long Beach looks to deepen, widen channels

Date: Friday, February 22, 2019
Source: American Shipper

With deeper channels, longer and wider ships will be able to move to and from berths without having to wait for high tides.

Matthew Arms, the director of environment planning at the port, noted that ships are continuing to grow in size. 

“I recall that when I started at the port in 2003, all the excitement was around the biggest ship to ever call at the port and it was 8,000 TEUs. Just 15 years ago, that was a big ship, Now they’re talking ships that are 20,000, 22,000 TEU.” 

Thomas Jacobsen, the president and chief executive officer of Jacobsen Pilot Service, said, “We are expecting a 19,000- or 20,000-TEU ship here pretty soon,” 

Jacobsen, whose pilots guide ships in and out of Long Beach, was not certain whether ships that large will call the port regularly. In 2015 and 2016, CMA CGM had its 18,000-TEU containership Benjamin Franklin make two experimental transpacific voyages, calling at terminals in Long Beach, Los Angeles, Seattle and Tacoma.

Maersk repositioned a couple of ships, the Eleonora Maersk and Eugen Maersk, last November and December into transpacific trade to meet peak season demand. The ships normally operate between Asia and Europe. Maersk gave their capacity as 15,500, while BlueWater Reporting sizes them at 17,816 TEUs.

But Port of Long Beach officials noted that their proposal is forward looking. Today, the average size ship calling the port is still just around 8,000 TEUs. It said OOCL and COSCO bring 13,000-TEU ships to the port and there was one larger ship, the 14,000-TEU APL Esplanade, that called Long Beach last month and in the second quarter of 2018.

“We definitely need this and it is not only containerships, but VLCCs (very large crude carriers),” said Jacobsen. “This opens up windows for bringing even bigger ships.”

For example, he said, Jacobsen pilots are bringing in VLCCs loaded to 69 feet draft, but the ships have to wait for “tide windows.” Every foot of draft on a VLCC allows the tanker to load an additional 40,000 barrels of cargo, he explained, and oil companies and their ocean carriers want to maximize the cargo their tankers can carry. 

“The problem is that they are limited by the tide. They need to wait for four feet tide and sometimes that is not possible,” Jacobsen explained. 

While big ships can call Long Beach today, as demonstrated by the Benjamin Franklincall, the port’s design depth had always been 48 or 50 feet. 

But as ships have continued to grow in size, in addition to getting slightly deeper, they also have gotten wider and longer, so the port now thinks a more desirable design depth for the Long Beach channel and berths would be 55 feet to 57 feet.

The port also wants to widen channels, especially where ships turn. Some berths, for example those at the Long Beach Container Harbor at Pier E and some of those at Pier T, are already at 55 feet, but turning longer ships into those terminals could be challenging.

 Jay Field, a spokesman for the Los Angeles District officer of the Army Corps of Engineers, said a study of limitations and constraints of port channels “considered the longer lengths of newer containerships and found they would need to widen some of the channels to permit safe turning of the vessels.

“This determination was aided by the ship simulator at our Engineering Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi,” he said. (The first two and a half minutes of this video describes how the simulator was used in the Port of Long Beach project.) Jacobsen said two pilots from his company traveled to Vicksburg to participate in the study.

The neighboring Port of Los Angeles completed deepening its main channel to 53 feet several years ago. Port of Los Angeles spokesman Phillip Sanfield said the port believes with the main channel depth it will be able to handle ships larger than 18,000 TEUs. Port of Los Angeles currently is seeking bids for a project to deepen the berths at Everport Terminal from 45 feet to 53 feet and 47 feet. The port also finished a separate project at Yusen Terminals last year.

The Long Beach project contemplates deepening and widening secondary channels serving container terminals serving Pier J and Pier T in the Port of Long Beach.

The greater depth contemplated by the port would allow even fully loaded ships of 18,000- to 22,000-TEU capacity to move to and from berths without having to wait for high tide.

Many analysts are predicting larger ships will “cascade” into the transpacific trades as even larger ships are deployed on services from Asia to Europe.

As part of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process, an initial notice of preparation (NOP) was released in 2016 for the project. A revised NOP was released Jan 29.

The NOP says navigation improvements contemplated by the project for container vessels include deepening the Pier J approach channel, berths and constructing a turning basin to Pier J up to a depth of minus 57 feet mean lower low water or “MLLW.” (MLLW is defined by the National Ocean Service as the average of the lower low water height of each tidal day observed between 1983 and 2001.)

Port of Long Beach spokesman Lee Peterson explained, “The 57 feet is the depth for some of the project alternatives. Based on the feasibility study, the 55 foot depth is the preferred alternative thus far. The NOP still lists 57 in case that option is selected.”

It also includes deepening the Pier T/West Basin and additional berths up to minus 57 feet MLLW.

In addition, the NOP said proposed navigation improvements for tankers include deepening the approach channel, which extends two miles from the Queen’s Gate opening of the Long Beach Breakwater up to 80 feet below MLLW and inside the breakwater, constructing an anchorage area for very large tankers adjacent to the Port of Long Beach’s main channel to a depth of up to minus 76 feet MLLW and widening the channel in certain areas, which would make it easier for ships moving to and from a petroleum berth at Pier T.

The project is estimated to cost about $130 million and would involve removing about 8.3 million cubic yards of material. The material being removed would be sand or other soft sediment and could be performed with clamshell, hydraulic or hopper dredge barges.

Port officials noted that the exact depths of dredging will be determined based on an economic analysis of costs and benefits by the port and Army Corps of Engineers but are not expected to exceed the depths given in the NOP.

Money for the project would have to be appropriated by Congress. Deepening projects beyond 45 feet call for half the cost to be paid by the federal government and half by local sponsors such as the Port of Long Beach.

If both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Port of Long Beach Harbor Commission decide to go forward with the project, that decision would probably be made in the fall of 2021 and the U.S. Congress would have to appropriate the funds, with construction beginning sometime after that date, in perhaps 2023.

The port feels dredging its channels and berths to this depth will be sufficient for future containerships since as larger ships have been designed, they are increasing capacity by getting longer and wider, not by increasing their draft.

The deeper main channel will reduce the amount of lightering that tankers have to do and make navigation safer.

The approach channel outside the breakwater needs to be deeper than the main channel inside the breakwater because of ocean swells and because ships experience “squat” when under way, which reduces the distance between the hull and bottom when under way. On a 1,000-foot-long VLCC, Jacobsen said, a 1-degree pitch (in which bow and stern are rising and falling) may cause a ship to draw an additional 10 feet.

The approach channel to the Port of Los Angeles is separate from POLBs and is dredged to 81 feet and then to 53 feet.

Baron Barrera, an environmental associate at the Port of Long Beach, said that at a meeting to discuss the project last week, both Jacobsen and the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents maritime interests such as shipping companies and terminals, were “receptive and encouraging of the project moving forward.” A public comment period on the project is open until March 1.


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