Army Corps engineers ponder possible sequestration, furlough impacts

  • Monday, March 11, 2013

Lt. Col. Edward Chamberlayne, commander and District of Charleston engineer, watches an excavator work in the Clouter Creek disposal area.

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It’s a different world on Clouter Creek than what we’re used to.

First, how to get there. Entry onto the 1,400-acre area underneath the I-526 bridge is by boat. You follow the upper harbor of the Cooper River, saluting the adjacent Ravenel Bridge and waving to Daniel Island and North Charleston.

Dock at Clouter Creek where a late-model Jeep Grand Cherokee awaits. Dried mud and dust claim the floorboards. The interior roof is stripped. Red warning lights flash on the dashboard, highlighting the cracked windshield and who-knows-what’s-wrong-with-the engine. The bumpers are handmade and missing some bolts, so a bumpy ride always has a soundtrack. Alignment is most definitely an issue, as the car slides around an Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District-type playground of dirt, weeds and quicksand-like silt.

Somehow the quick-to-laugh engineers haven’t named the vehicle with an odometer approaching 300,000 miles.

Two Tuesdays ago on Clouter Creek had plenty of misfit characters too. Reporters, engineers, a commander and a slew of regular helping hands toured the area that so many people point at while driving on I-526 but don’t know what it is.

The answer: it’s called the Clouter Creek disposal area. It’s a 12-mile drive around an expansive dike system. The creek can contain dredge spoils for about 20 years.

Workers joke a movie depicting a barren war zone could be filmed in the dry locations. An excavator moves up and down a site by taking large blocks for his machine to be on, in order to prevent sinking. With the excavator bucket, he meticuously picks up one end of one of the blocks – measuring about 20 feet long and a few feet wide – and moves it from the end where he’s already worked to the end he’s working toward.

“The folks maintaining the disposal areas – that’s an art,” Lt. Col. Edward Chamberlayne, commander and District of Charleston engineer, said. “That’s an art that very few people know how to do.”

Chamberlayne said the disposal area is vital to the Charleston Harbor deepening project, which plans to increase the depth of the shipping channel.

But all those efforts could be thwarted by impending government spending cuts, commonly referred to as sequestration. Chamberlayne said the district gets $18-20 million a year from an appropriation from Congress to maintain the Harbor and other projects.

He’s not sure of the direct impact to Charleston, but the Civil Works budget could be reduced by five percent. “There’s some concern,” he said. “If we have the effects of sequestration on our customer’s budgets, that’s how I’m funded. I’m not funded by the Army. Although I’m in an Army outfit here, I’m not funded by the Army. I’m funded by the projects we do for our customers.”

The other pressing issue is furloughs, an unpaid leave for employees. Depending on the gravity of reductions, employees may only get paid for four days of work per week instead of five. “That’s really tough for our district,” Chamberlayne said. “If this doesn’t get resolved going into late April, we could have to furlough up to 250 employees working for the Charleston District.”

Chamberlayne couldn’t place one over the other in terms of impact. “We’re concerned about both. It limits my funding that we get through customers or my appropriation through Congress,” he said. “But it also limits my time. I have less hours in a week that I can spend on projects that we’re responsible for, so it’s a double whammy.”

Is this the biggest financial crunch he’s ever faced?

“Certainly in a long time,” he said. “There’s a lot of projects that we have underway that will be impacted.”

If the cuts are made, the district will prioritize projects into categories based on criteria such as necessity and current funding. “Certain things will be delayed or will happen slower. And then some activities we’ll just have to cancel altogether,” he said. “We’re going to have to do less with less...It’s the work in the future that we’re most concerned with.”

Chamberlayne maintained the importance of the Charleston Harbor deepening project, but said it’s not invincible to spending cuts. “There’s a potential for it to be delayed, because I do not have the ability to work full 40-hour weeks and overtime with those individuals (assigned to work the project),” he said. “That’s what the schedule was based upon. It was a very aggressive schedule to get as much done as quickly as possible.

“We’ll do everything we can not to slow the study but my options are being really limited.”

Although the creek’s unofficial mascot, the Jeep, is fondly referred to, Chamberlayne and other engineers hope it’s not a metaphor for future Charleston District operations. The Jeep has been doing “less with less” for quite a while.

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