As 2018 draws to a close, the barge industry and its partners and advocates have good reason to be proud of their accomplishments, many of which piled up in rapid succession close to Christmas.
That’s not to say that the past year did not bring its challenges. High water early in the year on the Upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers and multiple delays at aging locks and dams at many points on the inland system, from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to the Illinois River, frustrated barge operators.
The biggest source of uncertainty for barge customers, especially farmers, was President Trump’s trade policies. The first half of the year saw another record soy crop plunged into uncertainty amid talk of tariffs. Shifting of markets and increased barge movements of export coal held off drastic effects on barge rates, but by November, soy exports were down 94 percent and the tariff wars were negatively affecting rates.
At the G20 trade talks in Argentina, China and the U.S. agreed to hold off on further tariffs for 90 days. During these talks, the U.S. has been pushing China to make major soy buys from the U.S. in advance of any trade agreement. At press time, the U.S. Soybean Export Council, citing unidentified industry sources, said that China had agreed to buy 1.5 million to 2 million metric tons of American beans, with shipments expected to occur sometime during the first quarter. That was on top of 1.13 million tons of Chinese soy buys disclosed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture December 13. Observers caution that even if complete agreement is reached, we are now heading into the South American soy harvesting season.
The dedication of the Olmsted Locks and Dam Replacement Project was not just a relief but a huge triumph for the barge industry, which was key to its completion. The Capital Development Plan, crafted by barge industry members working closely with the Corps, was crucial to reviving funding for this project in Congress, to the point where it could be completed four years ahead of schedule and more than $300 million under the last cost estimate.
The successful rollout of Subchapter M, whose final phase occurred in July, was greatly shaped by the work that the industry did with the Coast Guard during its shaping and is still doing as the Coast Guard continues to issue clarifying letters and policies.
On the legislative and regulatory fronts, 2018 has been one of the most productive years ever for the barge industry. The credit should go squarely to The American Waterways Operators, Waterways Council Inc. and other advocacy organizations and their dedicated staffs, as well as to congressional leaders and members who recognize the important of the waterways to American prosperity.
In the “minibus” stopgap funding bill, the Corps finally received something close to the funding it needs to adequately complete and/or repair crumbling lock and dam projects. Once again, Congress has increased funding for the Corps over and above the president’s budget request.
President Trump kept a campaign promise when his acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, published EPA’s revised definition of “Waters of the U.S.” The new rule is likely to face court challenges, but EPA said the new rule “contains a straightforward definition that would result in significant cost savings, protect the nations’ navigable waters, help sustain economic growth and reduce barriers to business development.”
Another top waterway legislative priority was achieved when President Trump signed a Coast Guard authorization bill that included a Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA). EPA announced that because the law exempts from regulation discharges–except for ballast water– from vessels under 79 feet, the Small Vessel General Permit is repealed effective immediately.
The good news from Congress was crowned by another milestone for waterways supporters. On December 4, after many twists and turns, the 91-year-old Delta Queen finally received the long-awaited renewal of its exemption from the 1966 Safety of Life At Sea Act, allowing it to once again cruise the rivers. Delta Queen Steamboat Company spoke for many when it said, “This marks the beginning of a new chapter in American steamboat history.”