South Carolina Ports made history April 9 when it welcomed the first vessel to the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal, marking the first container terminal to open in the U.S. since 2009.
Operations launched March 30 with the arrival of the first container, followed by the first ship arrival, the Hapag Lloyd’s Yorktown Express.
The Leatherman Terminal, which has been 20 years in the making, is a generational milestone for SC Ports and for South Carolina. The terminal sits along the Cooper River in North Charleston, near Charleston Harbor. Its cranes can be seen throughout the region — the changed skyline serving as a reminder of Charleston’s success as a port city.
“The complexities of building a container terminal require great teamwork and persistence over many years. I have worked on this project from the start, from overseeing site preparation and site development of the former Navy Base, to managing the day-to-day construction of building a world-class container terminal. It is an unforgettable and deeply rewarding moment to see 14 years of work culminate with the first ship arrival at the Leatherman Terminal,” said Butch Weber, SC Ports’ General Manager of Project Management and Construction.
The Leatherman Terminal can efficiently work the biggest ships calling on East Coast ports. Phase One adds 700,000 TEUs of throughput capacity to the Port of Charleston.
SC Ports CEO Jim Newsome said that the opening of the terminal comes at just the right time, as U.S. container ports continue to handle unprecedented cargo volumes amid strong consumer demand. SC Ports had an all-time cargo record in March, with a 50% year-over-year increase in loaded imports.
“SC Ports is extremely proud to open the first container terminal in the U.S. since 2009 in South Carolina. This took years of effort by our team and project partners,” Newsome said. “We have invested in the right infrastructure at the right time to handle growing cargo volumes and bigger ships, ensuring SC Ports remains a top 10 U.S. container port. The Leatherman Terminal adds a berth and more capacity to the Port of Charleston when it is most needed on the East Coast. We made history today as we advance SC Ports’ capabilities and enhance South Carolina’s supply chain for generations to come. Tomorrow is here at SC Ports.”
Capabilities and capacity
The state-of-the-art Leatherman Terminal strengthens SC Ports’ big-ship capabilities and provides much-needed capacity to the East Coast. Its equipment, technology and design provide reliable, efficient service to customers.
Its 1,400-foot berth can handle a 20,000-TEU vessel. Five electric ship-to-shore cranes with 169 feet of lift height and 228 feet of outreach stand on the berth, ready to move cargo on and off container ships. These cranes are among the tallest on the East Coast.
The Leatherman Terminal’s 47-acre container yard has 25 hybrid rubber-tired gantry cranes and eight empty container handlers to efficiently move cargo boxes around the terminal. The rubber-tired gantry cranes are designed to reduce emissions and energy consumption.
“Our team oversaw the selection, design and fabrication of cranes overseas and then coordinated the equipment arrivals on a very active construction site. Following months of testing, these state-of-the-art cranes are ready to move containers on and off mega container ships and around the container yard. It is incredibly rewarding to see these massive pieces of cargo-handling equipment in action, resulting from years of planning,” said Ed Stehmeyer, SC Ports’ general manager for Projects and Design.
A six-acre refrigerated cargo area has six-story tall refrigerated container racks, enabling SC Ports to handle more fresh, refrigerated and frozen goods.
At full buildout, the $2 billion Leatherman Terminal will have three berths and 286 acres, adding 2.4 million TEUs of annual throughput capacity, doubling current capacity.
Senator Larry Grooms, Chairman, Senate Transportation Committee and Port Oversight Commission said, “The opening of the Leatherman Terminal is a truly amazing achievement, bringing more capacity online at the right time as bigger ships and more cargo continues to flow through the Port of Charleston. The Leatherman Terminal’s modern equipment will enable SC Ports to handle more cargo faster for our companies. This world-class container terminal, and the development of a near-dock rail facility and barge system, will enable SC Ports to efficiently handle more goods for decades to come, further supporting South Carolina’s economy.”
Building the terminal
SC Ports filed permits in 2003 to develop a container terminal on the south end of the former Navy Base in North Charleston, S.C. Permit approvals were received in 2007. Site work began in 2007 and continued through 2018; work included demolishing old buildings and preparing the former Navy Base site to handle port operations.
Site preparation was extensive, involving driving more than 6,300 miles of wick drains into the site to draw out water, and barging 6 million yards of sand and crushed rock to the site for fill material — yielding a flat, even surface on which to build the terminal.
Site development and construction kicked off in 2018. Building the terminal was like building a small city. The site needed a complete road system, electricity, utilities and buildings. An expansive container yard and wharf had to be built, and the arrival, testing and commissioning of 30 cranes had to be coordinated.
Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Transportation built the Port Access Road to provide motor carriers a direct connection between Interstate 26 and the Leatherman Terminal.
“SCDOT completed the Port Access Road on time, providing a direct connection between Interstate 26 at exit 218 and SC Ports’ Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal,” said South Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall. “The complex project involved replacing an old, partial interchange with a new, modern interchange and performing other associated roadway improvements. The dedicated Port Access Road is four miles in length and provides a new, elevated and direct connection to the container terminal for motor carriers moving goods. The SCDOT team is excited to have played such an integral role in making the Leatherman Terminal accessible to further economic growth for our state. Congratulations to SC Ports on the opening of this truly historic project.” —
This all required great collaboration, with hundreds of people from every engineering discipline working together on the site every day. The project was finished on time and under budget.
The SC Ports’ engineering team worked with many contractors, including HDR Inc., Banks Construction Co., Samet Corp., Cape Romain/McLean – A Joint Venture and Cape Romain Contractors Inc. Nearly 80 percent of the dollars spent on construction contracts were awarded to S.C.-based firms.
“It is an incredibly exciting day to welcome the first ship and hear the bustle of terminal operations at the Leatherman Terminal,” SC Ports COO Barbara Melvin said. “Building and operating a port is like orchestrating an intricate ballet. This momentous and historic achievement is the result of tremendous collaboration among our entire team — particularly our excellent engineers — and numerous project partners, and through the support of our elected leaders. We are thrilled to operate this world-class facility with the broader maritime community, ensuring efficient operations and capacity for decades to come.”
The $1 billion investment to build Phase One is among the state’s biggest and most significant economic development projects to date. Its impact will be felt by waterfront workers and S.C. businesses for decades to come.
The Leatherman Terminal greatly enhances South Carolina’s supply chain, and a well-run port with capacity is an attractive asset for companies.
“SC Ports has long been the economic engine of South Carolina, and the opening of the Leatherman Terminal will generate more investments in our communities and high-paying jobs for South Carolinians,” said Sen. Hugh K. Leatherman, the terminal’s namesake. “SC Ports has seen tremendous growth over the past decade as bigger cargo ships continually call on the Port of Charleston. The modern container terminal greatly expands SC Ports’ capacity and capabilities. It gives me immense pride to see the Leatherman Terminal begin operations, the culmination of 20 years of hard work. The Leatherman Terminal, combined with the many strategic infrastructure investments made by the port, will have a positive impact on our state for generations to come.”
The Leatherman Terminal is part of SC Ports’ $2 billion infrastructure investment plan, which also involves enhancing Wando Welch Terminal. With these combined investments, SC Ports can handle four 14,000-TEU vessels simultaneously — an impressive capability that few U.S. ports can offer.
Congressman Jim Clyburn called the opening of the Leatherman Terminal “a monumental achievement for South Carolina. This $1 billion project is one of our state’s biggest economic development projects to date. This impressive container terminal offers big-ship capabilities and cargo capacity to SC Ports’ customers, which will support jobs, investment and economic development in S.C. communities for generations to come.”
The Charleston Harbor Deepening Project is on track to achieve 52 feet of depth this year, making it the deepest harbor on the East Coast. SC Ports also looks to develop near-dock rail capabilities with the future Navy Base Intermodal Facility, located about a mile from the Leatherman Terminal, and an inner-harbor barge system.
“South Carolina’s successful supply chain is a direct result of the strategic investments made in port infrastructure that allows us to handle bigger ships and more cargo,” SC Ports Board Chairman Bill Stern said. “The opening of the Leatherman Terminal is a hugely significant milestone for SC Ports and for South Carolina as a whole, setting us up for continued success.”