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Is the Diamond State Port a Sinking Ship?

From: Kathleen Rutherford, Executive Director, A Better Delaware

The Port of Wilmington on paper should be a profitable industry that brings Delawarean’s many maritime jobs. It is a top importer of fresh fruits and is in a favorable geographic position to allow truckers easy access to the nations interstate system. Despite this, the state-run Diamond State Port Corp was operating in the area with a $10 million loss annually. Their solution was to lease the port in 2018 to Gulftainer, a port operator based out of the United Arab Emirates. This decision was celebrated at first, but it is currently unclear if the $600 million deal  will turn profitable.

According to Gulftainer, it has continually lost money over the past three years.  Yet according to the American Journal of Transportation, Wilmington Port’s revenue increased by 50 percent year over year, including with the pandemic. This lack of cash by Gulftainer  is even more troubling when observing that they received $7 million from the federal government’s PPP program as well as a line of credit through their mortgage worth up to $350 million. Why has our state investment been delayed compared to other ports,  when food shipments seem to have held up well and financial resources abundant?

Additionally during the peak of the pandemic the State allowed for the company to postpone investing an additional $250,000,000 into the construction of a new container terminal. State permits for the facility had been approved albeit through questionable legislation which gave Gulftainer an advantage against other competitors. Senator Thomas Carper used his congressional influence to insert terms into the America’s water Infrastructure Act of 2020 (which he co-sponsored) that were specifically favorable to the company. These provisions include allowing Gulftainer to dispose of dredged material at federal dredge disposal sites for almost no cost and changing the environmental rules surrounding the Edgemore former chemical site by allowing for development permits to be issued for the port without the environmental studies that are typically required.

Delaware Secretary of State Jeffery Bullock with the help of our legislators made an amendment to Gulftainers original lease agreement. This amendment has effectively lowered the annual fee that Gulftainer pays to Delaware in exchange for the erasure of debt that Delaware owed to the company. The debt was revealed to be $13,400,000, but they failed to disclose the interest rate that Delaware was paying on the loan. Without this information, it is impossible to tell if this was a move made in the taxpayers favor or a money saving maneuver for the state.

There was also an attempt to gain access to emails sent between Gulftainer officials and the executive director of the Diamond State Port Corp that were denied. Refusing to make this information public knowledge may be indictive of either wrongdoing or an even an unfavorable economic forecast of the company’s future.

The Port of Wilmington has the potential to become one of Delaware’s greatest assets. It remains to be seen if Gulftainer will be able to turn the port profitable, with its current lack of financial management. It is clear however that offering Gulftainer favorable treatment and failing to publicly disclose all its dealings are troubling business practices by our State that should be questioned. Continued lack of accountability and transparency within our state government will erode public trust and discourage economic growth in Delaware.