Just before 5 a.m. on Monday, April 18, Capt. Billy Simmons' work cell phone started humming.
That's never good news.
Simmons, who oversees the marine hazard and navigation program for the
Corps of Engineers' Norfolk District, holds the Corps' 24/7 hotline. If there's trouble in the district's hundreds of miles of federally regulated waterways, he's among the first to know.
On the other end of the line was the
, which issued Simmons a directive: Figure out how a 750-foot coal collier ran aground in the center of the region's most important shipping channel and put together a plan to clear the waterway for navigation.
Just before 3 o'clock that morning, the MV Petalon — a Greek-flagged bulk carrier loaded down with 84,135 metric tons of Appalachian coal — ground to a sudden halt in the center of
' primary shipping channel, its speed dropping from 11 knots to zero in a matter of seconds, according to a harbor pilot's recounting of the event.
The vessel was drawing more than 47 feet of water and shouldn't have had any problems traversing the channel, which was dredged to a depth of at least 50 feet, according to a survey conducted just weeks before.
"It was completely surprising — a shock. No vessel should ever be able to run aground in that channel," said Lt. Cmdr. Aja Kirksey, who was standing watch for the Coast Guard during the incident.
Matters were made worse when the Petalon, per standard procedure when a ship runs aground, dropped its anchor. Within minutes, an outgoing current swung its stern perpendicular to Thimble Shoal Channel just east of the
, causing it to block about half of the 1,000-foot-wide shipping lane that connects Hampton Roads with the world.
The situation was dire, and the implications were huge.
Among the most important of the channel's users is
, the world's largest Navy base, which depends on the water highway to move its largest vessels in and out of port, including aircraft carriers, the centerpieces of the fleet.
Economically, a long-term shutdown of the channel would be crippling. Each day the port is closed to marine traffic, the region loses about $112 million in economic activity, said Capt. Mark Ogle, commanding officer and captain of the port for Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads.
Keeping the region's series of shipping channels open, dredged and free of obstructions is the job of the Corps' Norfolk District, which employs 554 workers, mostly civilians, and relies solely on Congress for funding.
The Corps' most important sea lane is the 13-nautical-mile-long Thimble Shoal Channel, which stretches from off the coast of the Atlantic, through the
Bay and into harbor in Norfolk.
It feeds two channels heading up the Bay — one north to the Port of Baltimore and another west toward the York River. In Hampton Roads, the channel leads to various entrance reaches, including those that serve the Navy, the coal piers in
and Norfolk and several port properties.
The Corps' mission has grown in importance over the last three decades, as ever-larger ships carrying ever-heavier loads flocked to Hampton Roads. And its role figures to become even more crucial as the port attempts to lure giant cargo vessels that are expected to arrive in waves once the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2014.
Around the world, shipping lines have ordered hundreds of the new, larger vessels that stretch longer than four football fields and hold more than 12,000 twenty-foot container units — more than triple the capacity of most of the ships that call on the port today.
The larger vessels, called "Post Panamax" or "New Panamax" for their ability to squeeze through the enlarged canal once its completed, stretch longer than 1,200 feet and can draw as much as 49 or 50 feet of water.
"One of the critical components to the success of the Port of Virginia is our deep water," said J.J. Keever, a deputy executive director for the Virginia
. "As container ships continue to get larger and larger, we're in the enviable position among our East Coast competitors to be able to handle those vessels today."
Some larger vessels already have made port in Hampton Roads. At least two ships capable of carrying more than 8,400 container units visited Norfolk in 2010, the CMA CGM Figaro and the MSC Tomoko.
"They're coming in (drawing) 41, 42, 43 feet (of water)," said Capt. Bill Cofer, president of the Virginia Pilots Association, a group of 45 captains who guide ships into port in the region. "Some of them are coming here first because we can handle them now while no one else can."
Today on the East Coast, only the ports of Baltimore and Hampton Roads have 50 feet of water, though the Port of New York/New Jersey has plans to dredge to 50, according to the Corps.
The decision to go to 50-foot channels from 45 feet in Hampton Roads was driven by a boom of export coal in the 1980s that lured larger coal colliers to the region. By 1987, the outbound lane of Thimble Shoal Channel was dredged to 50 feet, providing those heavier, deepwater vessels sufficient clearance to transit the harbor with a full load.
The Corps has authorization to take the channel to 55 feet, but that project has yet to be funded.
Demand for U.S. coal is again strong this year, driven by a weak dollar and soaring demand from China, India and Europe, ratcheting up heavy-vessel traffic in the port.
That means more ships like the Petalon, which when fully loaded draw nearly 50 feet of water.
Federal budget cuts
The rise in the number of deep-draft vessels will require the Corps to be extra vigilant, but it may have to do so with less funding.
The Corps' budget rode a steady upswing over the last decade, rising to a high of $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2010, up from $280.7 million in 2003.
In 2011, the figure is projected to drop to $866.7 million with more cuts likely on the horizon.
As a budget battle looms in
over mounting federal debt, no programs are viewed as safe. At a time when Congress and the
are considering cuts to once-untouchable entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, the Corps will have to fight maintain current spending levels.
"To date, funding has been adequate to maintain the programs we have, but it doesn't allow us to plan for the future," said Michael Anderson, chief of the design section in the operations branch of the Corps' Norfolk District.
With its current budget, the Corps is able to dredge Thimble Shoal Channel once every couple of years and perform a full underwater survey of the sea lane at least once a year, Anderson said.
He calls it "just-in-time dredging."
The port authority's Keever said maintaining the channels and harbors "is a key function of the U.S. government to ensure that commerce can flow in and out of this country."
A continued reduction in Corps funding, Keever said, "is troubling for us in the port business and should be troubling for all Americans."
The region has a silver bullet, however, when it comes to finding money for necessary dredging projects: The Navy.
"I would think that the priority is always going to be the deep-draft ports, and of course, the Navy," said Capt. Ogle of the Coast Guard. "The story here in Hampton Roads is we've got the Navy. For national security purposes, that gives us a big leg up on other places."
Any obstruction in Hampton Roads' harbors or sea lanes, however minor, rises to a top national security priority.
A problem in one of the region's channels could halt Navy traffic in and out of the harbor, especially for its larger vessels like aircraft carriers. That's part of the reason the Navy wants to move at least oneNorfolk-based flattops to
The April incident involving the Petalon was case-in-point.
Immediately after the ship ran aground, the phone tree lit up.
Calls went out to the Corps, the Navy, the Virginia Maritime Association, the Virginia Pilots Association, the Virginia Port Authority, tug boat operators and dredging firms.
Two tugs were dispatched to the ship. The Coast Guard broadcast a warning. The Corps dispatched two survey boats to the site to determine the extent of the damage and worked behind the scenes to see how quickly it could alter dredging contracts to expedite an emergency dredging project at the site.
The Coast Guard's first concerns were if anyone was injured, if the ship was in peril of sinking or if there was any danger of pollution.
"Once we ruled those things out, we determined that the worst thing we were dealing with was that it was blocking the channel," Kirksey said.
With the channel blocked, several ships were in danger of being delayed, including a mid-sized Navy vessel.
"This could have been absolutely devastating," Ogle said.
But it wasn't.
A combination of decades of experience, cooperation among agencies and luck prevented what each of the maritime partners called a worst-case scenario.
By 8 a.m., with the benefit of a high tide, the tugs were able to nudge the Petalon loose. The ship was ushered to an anchorage and inspected to ensure it had not sustained any damage.
The five hours that morning the ship was stuck in the center of the sea lane "seemed like an eternity," Kirksey said.
Within two hours, two survey vessels, one from the Corps and another on contract, were on the scene performing soundings to determine the shallowest depth in the channel.
"Around 2 p.m., we found that the least depth was 41.1 feet in the center of the channel — a major problem," said Simmons of the Corps.
The Coast Guard's final report on the incident indicated that minor shoaling – the natural migration of silt, sand and muck from outside the ditch-like channel – caused the Petalon's bow to burrow into the bottom. When it hit, it pushed a "hump" of material up several more feet.
A 700-foot by 350-foot area needed to be dredged as quickly as possible.
The Liberty Island, a hopper dredge already working on a Corps project in the Chesapeake Bay, arrived on the scene at 11 p.m. and began vacuuming up sediment along the bottom of the channel.
Twenty-four hours later, the Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. vessel had sucked up more than 4,000 cubic yards of material. The minimum depth following the $100,000 project was 50 feet, 6 inches.
Both lanes of the channel were re-opened to traffic.
Only two commercial ships were significantly delayed during the two-day scramble.
The inbound Navy vessel lost about two hours and was re-routed around the problem, Ogle said. Fortunately, it wasn't an aircraft carrier, he said.
"I don't think a carrier would want to try to sneak past" the Petalon, Ogle said. "We got pretty lucky."
The Corps' Anderson said the coordinated response and cooperation among several agencies should give port users confidence in the resiliency of Hampton Roads.