Ships sit inside the Port of Long Beach complex Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Plans to deepen channels at the Port of Long Beach took another step forward on Monday.

The Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the final environmental impact report for a project that will see 7.4 million cubic yards of sediment relocated to help the nation’s second-busiest seaport operate more efficiently. The vote came two months after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers greenlit the plans.

Assistant Secretary of the Army Michael Connor issued a decision on the port’s Deep Draft Navigation Feasibility Study and Channel Deepening Project on July 6, writing that the plan is “technically feasible, economically justified, in accordance with environmental statutes, and in the public interest.”

The port’s executive director Mario Cordero also touted the project’s necessity.

“I certainly agree 100% that what’s before you has a significant national benefit,” Cordero said during Monday’s commission meeting.

Project details

The $170 million project will deepen various channels, basins and berths, as well as widen key passages within the port complex. Features of the project include:

  • Deepening the Long Beach Approach Channel from 76 feet to 80 feet along the passage through the breakwater at Queen’s Gate.
  • Easing turning bends in the Main Channel to deepen a wider area to 76 feet.
  • Deepening portions of the West Basin from 50 to 55 feet.
  • Constructing an approach channel and turning basin to Pier J South with a depth of 55 feet.
  • Deepening the Pier J Basin and the Pier J South Slip to 55 feet.
  • Improving the breakwaters at the entrance to the Pier J Basin to allow for the deepening of the basin and slip.
  • Depositing dredged material in either nearshore sites for reuse or federally approved ocean disposal sites.
  • Constructing a new electric substation to power dredging equipment used within Queen’s Gate.
A project map for the Port of Long Beach’s channel deepening project. Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

The project cleared the federal government’s cost-effectiveness hurdle, according to port staff. The total cost of the project will be shared, with the port on the hook for $109 million and the remainder being federal funds, according to port spokesman Lee Peterson.

The project builds on previous dredging completed in 2014 that deepened most of the Main Channel to 76 feet. Planning for the new project began a year later, using funding left over from the 2014 effort, according to the port.

“Anticipating and preparing for the future is the hallmark of a world-class port,” Sean Gamette, the managing director of engineering services at the port, said in an August statement.

Environmental impacts vs. benefits

The Army Corps’ approval confirms the project is in line with multiple federal laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act.

But the project is expected to generate nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds at levels that exceed South Coast Air Quality Management District daily thresholds, according to a staff report.

During the commission meeting, community groups and a lawyer from Earth Justice spoke out against the project due to concerns over pollution. Earth Justice was part of the coalition that lobbied against and successfully stopped the 710 Freeway widening project.

To limit environmental impacts, the project will utilize electric dredging equipment as well as Tier 3 harbor craft and Tier 4 off-road construction equipment, which produce less emissions, according to a staff presentation. Equipment idle time also will be limited to five minutes.

Despite the mitigating measures, “significant air quality impacts are expected to remain,” the staff report reads.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act, however, agencies can balance a project’s benefits against its adverse impacts. The dredging project has several “overriding considerations,” including economic, legal, social, technological and other benefits, that “outweigh the unavoidable adverse environmental effects,” according to the staff report.

During Monday’s meeting, Harbor Commissioner Frank Colonna said the project is an “absolute necessity” and a “critical element of [the port’s] evolution.”

The Port of Long Beach ranked 19th in the world in 2020 in terms of container volumes, according to data from the World Shipping Council. As one of the busiest container terminals in the world, some of the largest ships in operation call in Long Beach. But tidal flows and weather currently limit when the largest ships can navigate the complex, port officials say.

The dredging project will give ships more room to maneuver, which will increase efficiency and safety, according to staff.

“Increasing the depth below the ship’s keel and making the channels wider is a huge improvement for navigational safety,” Tom Jacobsen, president of Jacobsen Pilot Services said in an August statement. The family-owned company has provided pilot service to the port since 1924.

Deeper and wider waterways also will reduce the need for lightering, port staff said, which is the process of tankers transferring their liquid bulk cargo to smaller vessels. Bigger tankers will now have the clearance to enter the port themselves.

Similarly, the project will allow larger container ships to carry more cargo, which will reduce the number of ship calls, delays and wait times, which reduces overall emissions from the massive vessels.

The deepening project also will reduce transportation and product costs, according to the staff report.

Jacobsen lauded the port’s various efforts to increase efficiencies and reduce emissions, including the Long Beach International Gateway Bridge and the Long Beach Container Terminal at Middle Harbor.

“All of this takes years of planning and forethought,” he said.

Next steps

With the approval of the final environmental report, the board will next need to approve a harbor development permit to advance the project. Once permits are approved, the port and Army Corps will proceed with design and engineering agreements, detailed planning and budgets, seeking bids for construction contracts, and funding, Gamette said during the meeting.

The Army Corps is already set to contribute $8 million toward pre-construction, engineering and design. The funding became available as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed by President Joe Biden in November.

Dredging is expected to begin in 2025 and take three years to complete, according to port staff.

The port will maximize the reuse of sediment by replenishing an undersea borrow site off the coast and using it for future port redevelopment projects, where feasible, according to staff. If used for port construction such as building leasable terminal space, the sediment could save the agency tens of millions of dollars.

“Strong federal support represents a huge vote of confidence in the Port of Long Beach and work we’ve been doing together to ensure this economic engine continues to power Southern California and the nation into the future,” Gamette said in August.

Reporter Jason Ruiz contributed to this report.

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.