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Mississippi Valley Trade & Transport Council Holds 36th Annual Conference

The Mississippi Valley Trade & Transport Council (MVTTC), in tandem with The Coal Institute, held its 36th annual World Trade & Transport Conference February 8 in New Orleans, La., with members and other attendees gathering at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel in the heart of the French Quarter.

The conference offered a weighty lineup of speakers and topics, which ranged from a river operations and infrastructure update and a commodities-focused panel discussion to coal and transportation panels and a general economic outlook. The conference also featured a special presentation by Chad Pregracke, founder and president of Living Lands & Waters, the East Moline, Ill.-based environmental organization dedicated to cleanup and conservation efforts on the nation’s rivers.

This was the second year MVTTC and The Coal Institute joined together to present the World Trade & Transport Conference, MVTTC Chairman Billy Fitzpatrick said to begin the conference. That partnership has been both successful and historically significant, Fitzpatrick said, noting the important role coal has played in MVTTC over the years.

“The roots of the Mississippi Valley trade group go back to the coal industry,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was known as the Mississippi Valley Coal Exporters Council when it began in the early 1980s, so our roots run deep in the coal industry. It’s been a big part of those who live and work here in the Lower Mississippi area.”

And while conference sessions spanned a wide range of topics, Fitzpatrick said to look for common threads running throughout all the presentations: funding, money and infrastructure.

“None of this, none of what we do, can really take place without the infrastructure in place and the people to run the infrastructure,” he said.

Coast Guard

Capt. Wayne Arguin, commander of Coast Guard Sector New Orleans looked back to last year’s record flooding in Texas and Louisiana as a result of Hurricane Harvey and forward to both the start of Subchapter M and this year’s high water season on the Mississippi River and tributaries. He noted that the New Orleans area, in large part, was spared any impacts at all last year from hurricanes that made landfall both to the west (Harvey) and east (Nate).

“I was the ham of the hurricane sandwich,” Arguin said.

Arguin praised the Cajun Navy, the Louisiana-based grassroots waterborne search-and-rescue team that transported thousands stranded in Harvey’s floodwaters to safety in the Houston area and Western Louisiana.

At the same time, Arguin said that limited structure can present a challenge to local law enforcement and the Coast Guard as residents in need of assistance log multiple requests with emergency managers and social media platforms.

“You can get requests for help on a hashtag you don’t know exists,” Arguin said.

Volunteer groups like the Cajun Navy may be the first to respond, Arguin said, but law enforcement and the Coast Guard, without knowing that, may send rescuers to the same location, only to find the residents already evacuated. Arguin said the Coast Guard is working with the Cajun Navy and the State of Louisiana to coordinate—and not duplicate—efforts going forward.

“We are working to try to figure out a way to bind that together in an actual operational plan,” he said. “The beauty of the Cajun Navy is that it’s grassroots. There’s no regulation. It’s just people wanting to help. … We’re trying to be mindful of that grassroots, sort of jump-in-the-middle-and-let’s-get-it-done [mentality], but we want to do it safely.”

Looking forward, Arguin said his team is focused on getting ready for the onset of Subchapter M. He said the Coast Guard is working to identify interpretations and guidelines for implementing the regulation, whether a company chooses the third-party organization inspection option or the Coast Guard option.

“I know there are a lot of questions about interpretations, whether a third party is going to interpret things differently than the Coast Guard,” Arguin said. “Our headquarters folks are working pretty hard to get as much of that out as possible. Just understand that we’re dealing with this just like you are.”

Also on the horizon, Arguin said, is the snow thaw toward the north, with the potential for high water as a result.

“We have a pretty robust and a tried-and-true plan in our Waterways Action Plan and our High Water Crisis Action Plan,” Arguin said. “[We have] different triggers for different things to try to prevent bad things from happening, and we’re constantly working with our industry partners to make sure that is effective and not overly burdensome.”

Corps Issues

Edward Belk Jr., chief of civil works programs integration for the Corps of Engineers, followed Arguin and offered an overview of the fiscal challenge facing his agency. Belk noted the Corps has some $2.5 billion in deferred maintenance, a $76 billion new-construction backlog and a $20 billion dam-safety backlog. The Corps is also facing a major recapitalization phase due to the fact that infrastructure in place simply won’t last forever.

“The Corps of Engineers, much like the rest of the nation, has a giant math problem, because we have $100 billion worth in deferments and construction, a quarter trillion dollars of assets we’re operating and maintaining, and we’re doing that with a budget top line of about $4.7 billion a year,” Belk said.

Belk said, with Olmsted Locks and Dam’s completion later this year, the financial picture will improve a bit, but a structural overhaul is needed.

“Really, traditional funding delivery models are increasingly inadequate,” Belk said, later adding, “We’re trying to think differently within the Corps to move to less of a prescriptive adherence to guidance to more of a risk-informed decision-making closer to where the projects are. Because we’ve got to be more nimble and flexible if we’re going to be able to respond to what the nation expects.”

The commodities and transportation panelists gathered for the conference generally took a cautious stance on the economic outlook for their industries.

Interestingly, Mike Steenhoek with the Soy Transportation Coalition said his organization is getting ready to release a study on the impact that dredging the Lower Mississippi River to 50 feet could have on agriculture in the Midwest.

“The role that we’re going to play on this is to try to broaden the perspective for it to not just be regarded by lawmakers as ‘That’s a Louisiana thing’ or ‘That’s a Lower Mississippi River thing,’” Steenhoek said. “It’s my theory, and it’s going to be my argument, that policy makers in the Midwest need to regard this infrastructure enhancement as their thing, something that has application to their constituents.”

Steenhoek said he expects the study to highlight the impact deeper drafts on the Lower Mississippi River will have on barge cargoes on the upper reaches of the system. By making ship movements on the Lower Mississippi River more cost-effective, Steenhoek said he believes transporters will be more willing to truck agricultural products to the Mississippi River to load on barges rather than moving them by rail to the West Coast.

Next year’s World Trade & Transport Conference is already on the calendar for February 27–28, 2019, again at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel. As with this year, the conference will coincide with the main weekend leading up to Mardi Gras on March 5, 2019. For more information, visit www.mvttc.com.

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