Charleston turns in top numbers for June, but more on tap

Charleston Leatherman Terminal
The Hugh K. Leatherman Container Terminal–Credit: South Carolina Ports Authority

August 10, 2023 – South Carolina’s Port of Charleston is coming off one its best years ever, bolstered by especially strong throughput results for the month of June. And the results will be even better when Charleston is able to see its award-winning Leatherman Terminal operating at full capacity.

In terms of import volume for June, Charleston ranks number seven among the nation’s top ten ports with total throughput of 95,831 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units(TEUs)—well ahead of the Northwest Seaport Alliance and the Port of Oakland, with 90,768 TEUs and 66,295 TEUs respectively.

While its throughput figure is dwarfed by the likes of Los Angeles, New York-New Jersey and Long Beach, an important fact puts Charleston ahead of its larger rivals: six percent growth in imports year over year for June.

Indeed, Charleston is the only one of the nation’s top ten ports showing an increase in import throughput, with all of the others showing steep declines. Charleston also is the only port to show an increase in exports: up 33% year over year.

“SC Ports provides reliable, efficient service for companies’ supply chains,” SC Ports President and CEO Barbara Melvin said. “Port-dependent businesses will continue to invest in South Carolina to gain access to a well-run port with capacity in the booming Southeast market.”

The June numbers helped SC Ports handle “unprecedented” cargo volumes in fiscal year 2022, setting TEU records for 11 of the 12 months. In its annual report, SC Ports said the Port of Charleston moved a record 2.85 million TEUs in fiscal 2022, up 12% from the year prior.

“We implemented creative solutions, including prioritizing vessels, leasing new SC Ports’ chassis, hiring 150 people in operations and extending gate hours. These measures benefited customers and improved the lives of motor carriers,” Melvin said in the annual report.

The numbers are likely to improve even more when the Port of Charleston is able to make full use of its award-winning Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal, which opened in March 2021 and is designed to double the port’s throughput capacity.

Phase One of Leatherman Terminal can handle 700,000 TEUs of cargo and a 20,000-TEU vessel. At full buildout, the terminal will have three berths capable of handling 2.4 million TEUs of cargo.

As a further sign of its importance, the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal was named a “Grand Award Winner” in June at the 2023 Engineering Excellence Awards Gala sponsored by The American Council of Engineering Companies.

But the project has been held up by a labor dispute: the port wants cranes at the Leatherman terminal to be operated by non-union labor, while the dockworkers’ union—the International Longshoremen’s Association—wants the cranes to be operated by union workers.

To enforce their point of view, the ILA has launched several lawsuits against shipping lines aiming to prevent them from using non-union labor at the terminal, a tactic that has significantly slowed Leatherman throughput by nearly 90%.

“The equivalent of about 92,000 20-foot-long containers were moved on or off ships during the fiscal year that ended June 30, or 13 percent of what the new terminal was designed to handle,” the Post and Courier said.

If 92,000 TEUs represents just 13% of what the Leatherman Terminal can do, then it is clearly in the interests of port-dependent businesses “in South Carolina and beyond” to have the remaining 87% of capacity—some 600,000 TEU—online as soon as possible.