Dare County took the first step in approving the structure of a loan that will use $15 million of state money to build a dredge aimed at keeping Oregon and Hatteras inlets clear.
The Oregon Inlet Task Force, at its meeting Wednesday, endorsed the terms of the loan funded by a provision in the state budget passed in the 2018 session of the General Assembly.
Although the federal government is responsible for keeping both inlets dredged and navigable, budget shortages and constant shoaling have made that nearly impossible over the past two decades.
The inlets have often been closed to the larger fishing trawlers that once worked out of the Wanchese harbor, resulting in a serious decline in local fish landings and financial difficulties for fish houses and supporting industries in northern Dare as well as Hatteras Island.
In recent years the shoaling has become severe enough to affect charter and recreational use of both inlets, creating even more economic uncertainty in those profitable industries.
The plan to build the dredge under a public-private partnership would allow the county to deploy the dredge almost year-round and when not needed, to allow the dredge to operate in other shallow water ports within the state.
The loan agreement is between Dare County and EJE Recycling Disposal Inc. and EJE Dredging Services LLC. The county chose the two firms, which are owned by Judson T. Whitehurst, last August to find a contractor to build the dredge, oversee its construction and operate the dredge once it is certified by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The $15 million loan agreement is for a period of 10 years and is forgivable if the company saves the county the same amount in dredge fees. The savings will be calculated by setting a base rate, defined as the rate set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for daily use of the dredge Murden and will be adjusted each Oct. 1.
If, after 10 years, the savings to the county do not cover the $15 million cost, the remainder will be amortized into a new loan and repaid by the EJE entities.
The dredge will work at the direction of the Oregon Inlet Task Force. The OITF will also need to approve the use of the dredge outside of Dare County if it is not needed locally. State law restricts the dredge from use outside of North Carolina waters.
At the end of 10 years, or when the loan is deemed to have been paid off, the dredge becomes the property of EJE and will operate as a privately owned vessel available for hire by the county or other users.
The OITF approval was subject to some cosmetic changes involving typographical errors and some clarifying language that will be made by the county manager’s office.
The final loan agreement will require approval by the Dare County Board of Commissioners and the State of North Carolina.
Funding to operate the dredge over a five-year period has also been provided by a $10 million allocation from the state’s shallow draft channel fund and occupancy taxes collected by the county.