Dredging Front-And-Center At Trade Conference

The Mississippi Valley Trade & Transport Council and The Coal Institute held the annual World Trade & Transport Conference February 20 at the Omni Royal Orleans hotel in New Orleans’ historic French Quarter.

From the start, dredging on the Lower Mississippi River was front-and-center at the conference.

Michelle Kornick, operations manager for the New Orleans Engineer District, was part of a river operations and infrastructure panel at the conference. Kornick admitted that an important—and often challenging—component of dredging on the river is the availability of dredges to conduct the channel maintenance work.

“There’s more than one piece of the puzzle here, and we do have a severe problem with getting dredges to do the work,” she said.

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Kornick also highlighted an exciting project in the pipeline for the district: the deepening of the Lower Mississippi River channel to 50 feet. The deepening project will receive about $85 million in this year’s Corps Work Plan, and about $45 million for the project is in the president’s 2021 budget proposal. Those funds, combined with cost-share dollars from the state of Louisiana, will mean the Mississippi River Ship Channel should reach 50 feet from Baton Rouge, La., to the Gulf of Mexico within the next couple of years. Laying out a general timeline for the project, Kornick said the first step will be a project partnership agreement between the Corps and the state of Louisiana.

“That is scheduled—a rough schedule—to happen in May,” Kornick said. “Once that is done and we get the cost-share funding, we can start dredging the deeper channel. We’ll start at Southwest Pass. That will be simplest to do. We’re already very close to the 50-foot depth at Southwest Pass, because we’ve had some gauge adjustments lately. … Then in the next couple years we’ll be working from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.”

Team Sport

Later during the panel, Sean Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition and moderator of the panel, outlined what it took to achieve approval and funding for the deepening project. He made it clear the effort required Louisiana’s congressional delegation, maritime industry representatives, partners at the Corps and state officials all pulling in the same direction.

“Waterways management is a team sport,” Duffy said.

Duffy also praised the partnership between the Corps, the state and industry that’s made it possible to beneficially use material dredged from Southwest Pass to rebuild Louisiana’s Birdfoot Delta, which is critical to maintain the river’s channels as it nears the Gulf. The effort, Duffy said, is without match in the realm of coastal restoration.

“The largest wetlands restoration project in the world is happening below Venice,” Duffy said. “Ten thousand acres in right at 10 years. The deepening will add another 1,200 to 1,500 acres.”

Duffy said that work to restore the Birdfoot Delta has a twofold effect.

“This area is critical,” he said. “And yeah, I’m not delusional. When we rebuild that coast, it helps protect that channel, and that’s very important to what we do.”

Duffy recognized the river pilots especially for supporting the effort and working together to safely navigate ships past the cutterhead dredge often at work near Head of Passes at river Mile zero.

High Water

Also part of the river operations and infrastructure panel were Suzanne Van Cooten, hydrologist in charge with the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, and Tim Osborn, regional navigation manager with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Coast Survey. Van Cooten overviewed the historic 2019 high water season, calling the five-year period between 2015 and 2019 the wettest on record. Osborn sounded off on the recent trends of higher rain totals, longer high water seasons and extended dense fog seasons, proposing that the navigation industry and government agencies view those trends as the “new normal.”

“At that point, with that kind of new normal being firmly established in our minds, let’s then think about what we do with over $2 billion of economic commerce going on every day on the Mississippi River and to the port,” he said.

Rounding out the operations and infrastructure panel were Capt. Will Watson, deputy sector commander of Coast Guard Sector New Orleans, and Capt. Michael Miller, president of the Associated Branch Pilots.

Later in the program, Ken Eriksen, senior vice president with IHS Markit, moderated a trade and transport panel that featured Sal Latrico, CEO of American Patriot Holdings LLC (APH); Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition; Alexis Maxwell, research director for Green Markets, who spoke on fertilizer; Carl Warren, director of port development for CSX Transportation; and Paul Rohde, vice president for the Midwest Region of Waterways Council Inc.

Steenhoek looked at the negative impacts the United States’ trade war with China has had on the country’s farmers, comparing it to the impact a major league baseball stadium would have on business in its immediate vicinity.

“I think you can argue, particularly in the year 2019, for the soybean industry and a lot of U.S. agriculture, the major league baseball stadium moved, and that’s been very frustrating for us,” he said.

Steenhoek said the recently-announced Phase 1 trade agreement between the two countries has some promise, but there’s much left to be determined.

Container Plans

Latrico later outlined his company’s plan for establishing a new model of transporting containerized cargoes on the Mississippi River. The company has partnered with the Plaquemines Port, Harbor & Terminal District and a host of smaller ports upriver. American Patriot Holdings’ vision is to build a container terminal near the mouth of the Mississippi River and, utilizing a newly-designed, fast-moving container vessel, transport containers to inland ports more efficiently than truck or rail transport.

Latrico said from Plaquemines to Memphis will be a seven-day round trip, with a round trip to St. Louis taking 10 days. A round trip to Kansas City will take 11 days. Other points of connection, Latrico said, will include Dallas, Joliet, Ill., and Jefferson City, Mo. Latrico said the vessels will be able to travel 13 knots upriver. Latrico said economic modeling by APH indicates a potential 40 percent to 50 percent savings routing exports from St. Louis, Memphis or Arkansas overseas through Plaquemines, with a 25 percent to 50 percent advantage for imports moving through Plaquemines to those same inland ports.

“Our operational startup date, what we’re looking at right now, is we’re pretty close to finalizing some [memorandums of understanding] that bring some bankable volume to the table,” Latrico said. “We’re hoping to go to shipyards this summer, and we look to be in operation in the third quarter of 2022.”

The conference also featured an economic outlook and the awarding of a scholarship for a master of transportation student at the University of New Orleans. The conference concluded with a coal panel discussion looking at trends and forecasts for both steam coal and metallurgical coal.

The date for the 2021 World Trade & Transport Conference, which is tied to the Carnival season, is already set. The conference will be held February 10–11, 2021.