Dredge permits in hand for Port Authority

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Port St. Joe Port Authority chairman Eugene Raffield began Wednesday morning's meeting with a song without the melody.

"Oh, happy day," Raffield said, "Oh, happy day. Big headline news today."

That news is that permits for dredging the federally authorized shipping channel as well as for the dredge spoil disposal have been issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The permits are major stepping-stones to an operational port.

"This is outstanding news," said Tommy Pitts, project manager with Hatch Mott MacDonald.

The DEP issued a permit to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the actual dredge work. The DEP also issued a permit to the Port Authority that clears the way to contract out the work for construction of berms and infrastructure to handle the disposal of the roughly 1.5 million cubic yards of spoil.

Both permits carry a 5-year term, Pitts said.

The Port Authority must still secure a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps for the disposal aspect of the work, but Pitts said Hatch Mott has received a Request for Additional Information and is already processing a reply.

Pitts had also earlier said the DEP permit for the disposal side would expedite the Corps' permit.

"The Request for Additional Information is pleasing in that there were no insurmountable questions," Pitts said. "There are some significant tasks, but we are working on that."

Pitts said there would likely be a period for public comment and review and estimated the federal permit could be in hand in the next 30-60 days.

But those seemed minor quibbles considering the two permits in hand.

"To have an active port in 1838 and to go through all this community has...and now we have a set of permits to energize the port,"Raffield said. "It is so surreal to me."

"There are a lot of people excited about where the port is. This means jobs (and commerce) not only for the county, but the entire region."

Now, Raffield said, the task ahead is an "attack plan" for the funding to open up the port.

The Florida Department of Transportation has a $20 million legislative appropriation from last year for dredging as well as a $3.75 million grant earmarked, but not released to Genesse-Wyoming, for rail improvements from the Port of Port St. Joe to Chattahoochee.

In large measure, state officials had hinged releasing the money to the permitting for dredging the shipping channel.

With those permits in hand, Raffield said, it is time to release some of those funds.

"They are going to have to start releasing the money," he said. "A priority is getting the rail money released because (the improvements) will take longer than the dredging."

The Corps of Engineers will perform the dredging under a contributed-funds agreement with the Port Authority. That agreement is for $40 million, so additional state investment is needed.

Further, Hatch Mott has brought the Port Authority up to the point of bid documents to go out for a contractor for construction of spoil sites with that cost estimated at roughly $15 million.

That will mean the Port Authority will be seeking as much as $35 million to complete dredging of the channel and disposal site construction.

Raffield said he intended to ask for a meeting with local state legislators and the governor's office to determine a timeline for appropriating and disbursing of the funds.

Port Authority vice-chairman Jason Shoaf announced further good news for the Port of Port St. Joe in the form of a customer on-go for establishing during the second-quarter of the year a site within the port area to produce liquid natural gas.

Shoaf said the company plans to be operational by April.

The port has two other customers waiting in the wings for the dredging. Two energy companies have entered into agreements with the St. Joe Company to ship through the Port of Port St. Joe, provided dredging of the port is completed in a timely manner.

With two of the three key permits in hand, meeting that deadline of the end of 2015, given a six-month dredging operation, is more realistic.

"I want to thank the St. Joe Company because they have done a lot for this port behind the scenes," Raffield said.

Special praise was reserved for Hatch Mott, which undertook the task of obtaining the necessary permits with a established budget of $750,000 in grant funds and completed the work even though costs ended up higher.

"I want to thank Hatch Mott for doing their work and sticking to their word," Shoaf said.

Billy Perry of Hatch Mott said, "We had a very dedicated and strong team that worked with us."

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