CORBA Looks At Coal Tonnage Reductions

The reduction of coal cargo tonnage and the future of container-on-barge service were central topics of the Central Ohio River Business Association’s (CORBA) regional maritime committee meeting November 4.

The meeting was held virtually via the videoconferencing software Zoom.

CORBA President Eric Thomas spoke about the impact of the announced closures of the Zimmer and Miami Fort coal-fired power plants by 2027. Zimmer is a 1,426-megawatt plant. Miami Fort is a 1,180-megawatt plant.

“When those two facilities go offline, we’re going to see perhaps a 7 million ton reduction in our transport moving through the harbor,” Thomas said, referring to the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. “That’s significant when we’re talking about our No. 1 port ranking in terms of cargo moving through our port.”

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He noted that the port moved 38 million tons of cargo in 2018, the last year for which final figures were available, down about 10 million tons from a decade ago. If these closures did cause a 7 million ton reduction of cargo through the harbor, that would likely rank the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky as only the fourth or fifth busiest inland port in the nation in terms of cargo moved, Thomas said.

Overall, he said, coal supplied 87 percent of Ohio’s electricity in 2006; now it’s down to about 33 percent.

“Obviously, we’re seeing that trend across the board,” Thomas said.

While environmentalists have praised the reduction in coal-fired plants in favor of cleaner burning natural gas, “It’s not necessarily a good thing in terms of commerce on the waterway and the barge lines,” he said. “It’s something to pay attention to, but obviously we’ve got to keep working hard to try to replace some of this tonnage that we’re losing.”

Some of that could come from barging steel-related products, he said, pointing to recent Marine Highway-designated projects in the Cincinnati area involving Nucor Steel.

“We need to keep bringing in these steel companies and see Nucor move more product by waterway,” he said.

CORBA Chairman Scott James gave an update on the organization’s efforts to reach out to companies about the possibility of taking advantage of container-on-barge service in the future, although it does not currently exist on the Ohio River.

“CORBA has reached out to several individuals or entities that may be interested in scouring our region for container receivers or container shippers,” James said. “What we would like to do is provide those folks that are out there interacting with shippers and receivers a one-page snapshot with what the concept is and with some of what the timeframe is for delivery. It’s something we want to leave with people that just helps them get another step forward with considering the options.”

Containerized cargoes are currently coming into East Coast ports and then being trucked into the region.

“What we want to do is educate more people that there is another option developing,” Scott said, adding, “I will say we’ve had some interest from both sides of the river as far as that goes.”

Scott mentioned the possibility of CORBA holding workshops with businesses and helping to point them in the direction of vendors who could help them consider whether container-on-barge service would provide a financial advantage for them.

Some potential container-on-barge projects in other regions could hold promise for the Cincinnati area as well.

James mentioned the former Jeffboat shipyard in Jeffersonville, Ind., as one of those projects.

“One of the concepts behind the development of that property is container-on-barge,” James said. “Everything we’ve been reading about lately has been out on the Mississippi, but now, again, you start hearing about it more and more. This group that is trying to develop it down there, they have tried to sell the container-on-barge concept as being a viable option for that particular property, so we’ll keep our eyes on that.”

He also mentioned the construction of the new Alexander-Cairo Port at Upper Mississippi River Mile 5.7, which the state of Illinois funded with $40 million in August. Finally, he mentioned the Western Kentucky Riverport Authority’s hope of building its own riverport just across from Cairo in Wickliffe., Ky. The organization represents four western Kentucky counties joining forces in hopes of bringing the riverport to the region to spur economic development. The preferred site is on property belonging to Phoenix Paper, located at Lower Mississippi Mile 950.2, where Mayfield Creek flows into the Mississippi River. A site study is also looking at two other sites: where Beech Creek flows into the Mississippi at Mile 951.4 and where Willow Creek flows into the Mississippi at Mile 951.5.

“Container-on-barge has been mentioned as a possible business line for them,” James said. “For the same reason I think that Cairo is on the right track, I think this Western Kentucky Port Authority is on the right track, and it would only bode well for our region in that the main-line barge runs, should they develop, would be able to bring containers up as far north as those two areas, stage there and then shuttle, in a kind of spoke-and-wheel concept, to the Ohio River.”

Having two ports near where the Mississippi River meets the Ohio River gives shippers and barge lines more options on where to stage volumes to come in smaller shipments to the Ohio, he said.

Ultimately, Thomas agreed, the best promise for getting container-on-barge service in Cincinnati involves getting it at a location to the city’s west or south, whether it is one of the projects James named or taking advantage of containers being shipped by barge to St. Louis, Mo.

“We may not be able to get that container all the way to Cincinnati by water, but if we can get that container to St. Louis and then truck it, then there is that potential, and the cost-savings might be worth it,” Thomas said.

From there, he said, it’s “baby steps” to get container-on-barge closer to the city.

“It’s taking advantage of what’s available today and seeing if we can make it happen,” he said. “That’s the approach we’re trying to take to do that.”

Robyn Bankcroft, strategic initiatives manager for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, talked about applying for and receiving two federal grants on behalf of regional businesses.

The first project is a $1,083,05 award for a project with Benchmark River & Rail Terminals that will add two truck safety gates as well as a traffic signal where a major truck route crosses three railroad tracks. The grant funds 80 percent of the project with a 20 percent required local match.

The second grant funds $1,235,500, constituting 50 percent of the cost of a project with Cincinnati Bulk Terminals LLC. The project requires the company to provide the other half of the funding. It replaces truck trips with an overhead conveyor system and new material handler.

“We’re really excited to bring this new federal funding into the region, hopefully the first of many more to come,” Bancroft said.

Jeremy Edgeworth, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s (KYTC) freight, rail and waterways coordinator, said the Kentucky Riverports, Highway and Rail Freight Study is about one-third complete and that all site visits to the state’s publicly funded ports have been conducted. The study should be finished in August. The next project milestone is the KYTC’s virtual Summit on the Economic Role of Freight Modes November 16-18.
“What we’re going to have is a multitude of sessions that will focus on things the team has learned through those port visits,” Edgeworth said. That includes what commodities are passing through the ports and how to best further develop them, he said.

“We’re encouraged by the progress we’re making, and we’re looking forward to the summit,” Edgeworth said.

Also, both Edgeworth and Mark Locker, program manager for maritime, freight and logistics for the Ohio Department of Transportation, talked about their states studying the availability of truck parking, which has become difficult for some truckers to find in the Cincinnati area. Edgeworth said Kentucky’s study could begin as soon as January.

Locker said Ohio’s study would include both how many spaces are available publicly and privately and where those spaces are in relation to where they are needed for trucks to stage to be able to get safely into and out of the facilities where they need to go.