Last week’s meeting of the Port St. Joe Port Authority was noteworthy not for what must be accomplished to secure a permit to dredge the shipping channel but what would not have to be done.

Last week’s meeting of the Port St. Joe Port Authority was noteworthy not for what must be accomplished to secure a permit to dredge the shipping channel but what would not have to be done.

Shaving months and thousands of dollars off the timeline and budget for a permit to dredge the shipping, the Port Authority board was informed a significant federal process would be unnecessary.

Tommy Pitts, former port director and now project manager for engineers Hatch Mott MacDonald in securing a dredge permit, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not require a so-called Section 408 assessment of the dredge project.

A Section 408, in very broad strokes, is a study undertaken to determine how a dredging project might environmentally impact another Corps project.

Such a study would have cost the Port Authority, in the long-term, thousands of dollars but more importantly it would have significantly impacted the timeline for the dredging, extending it by as much as a year.

The key to the dredging for the Port of Port St. Joe is that under two letters of intent the St. Joe Company has secured with energy companies to transport wood pellets to domestic and international markets through the port hinged on dredging being completed sometime 2015.

In a dredge permit pre-application meeting with state and federal agencies in September, that component was the most worrisome to port officials.

On the flip side, there was optimism as the shipping channel is an authorized Corps project and therefore impacts to another Corps project were not evident.

“That is big news,” Pitts said of the decision by the Corps not to require the Section 408 assessment. “That would have been a deal-killer. That was very encouraging.

“We are not going to modify the channel beyond the federally-authorized channel.”

Also encouraging, said Pitts and Bill Perry with HMM, was that it was the lobbying of state agency officials which carried the day for the Port of Port St. Joe during a recent meeting.

In hiring Pitts – which came after the company and the Port Authority ensured crossed no legal or ethical boundaries – Perry noted Pitts’ long-standing knowledge with the government processes concerning ports as well as deep history with the Port of Port St. Joe.

Pitts learned of a meeting between officials with the Corps and state agencies. Pitts said last week that entering the meeting it seemed a foregone conclusion that Section 408 would come into play.

But, Pitts said, officials at state agencies lobbied the port’s case and that “support from leadership” was critical.

Pitts reiterated an aggressive timeline mapped out earlier by Perry when the outcome on Section 408 was an unknown.

The hope is to have an application to state and federal agencies within four to six months with a permit in hand by spring.

With the hope of funding for dredging coming in this coming legislative session – the estimated cost is at least $20 million – Pitts said the dredging could be completed by the end of 2014.

“That is an aggressive goal,” Pitts said. “There are too many unknowns to peg our hopes to that schedule.”

Depending on weather, work began this week on assessing materials and any potential contaminants along the floor of the shipping channel, Pitts said.

An assessment of the volume of the materials that will need to be dredged is underway as is a sediment survey, a time-consuming process that involves engineers taking bore samples at as many as 67 GPS identified locations in the ship channel and turning basin.

Potential disposal sites, including the old paper mill site, upland areas owned by St. Joe are being identified, Pitts said, as well as potential locations along St. Joseph Peninsula where any appropriate sandy material would be used for beach nourishment.

“We are working very hard at achieving our schedule,” Pitts said.

A cost –benefit study, to be performed by the Haas Institute out of the University of West Florida, is also underway, said Port Authority chair Leonard Costin.

That study is aimed at demonstrating the value of investing in the development of the Port of Port St. Joe, an important piece for the lobbying of state officials – who have from the governor down emphasized a return on investment gauge – during the coming legislative session.

“I see things coming together,” Costin said. “You can’t overstate the importance”  of the Corps of Engineers’ decision.