On McClellan-Kerr, Labor Issues Come To The Fore

Even though Hurricane Ida caused more damage than Hurricane Katrina on the inland waterways, what’s holding back river commerce right now isn’t the lingering effects of that damage, but labor issues, according to Marty Shell, president of Five Rivers Distribution in Little Rock, Ark., and a member of the Arkansas Waterways Commission. 

“Barge rates are through the roof if you don’t have a contract,” Shell told The Waterways Journal. “After Ida, you had about 200 barges damaged [throughout the Gulf region], and some shoreside facilities weren’t able to load or unload for a while, so you had a backup.” 

Barges, either empty or loaded, are hard to get. 

“It’s an inland river system issue,” Shell said. 

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But at the same time, customers “are being much more patient with barge delays.” They don’t feel they have the normal option of switching to other transportation modes when one experiences delays, he said. That’s because all the other transportation modes are experiencing high rates and delays as well. 

“You’re going to get truck rates like you’ve never seen before,” Shell said. 

It’s part of the general crisis in logistics and freight transportation resulting from many factors, from the congestion of ocean-going vessels on the West Coast to normal harvest-time peak demand. But labor issues are contributing to all these other issues as well, Shell said.  “The jobs are there; it’s better than it’s ever been. But you can’t get people to drive a truck. Labor issues apart, though, “These issues will work themselves out. The MKARNS system as a whole has been in pretty good condition. We need more business on it!”

At the Port of Little Rock, barge activity across the docks remained steady with 26 barges worked in September, according to Bryan Day, executive director of the port. “We handled just under 38,000 net tons of various commodities including aluminum ingots and sows, nepheline syenite, pet(petroleum) coke, pre-painted galvalume coils, rock, and sand, wetcake and wire rod coils,” he said.  A lock closure for scheduled maintenance at the David D. Terry Lock and Dam  from August 19 through August 29 halted barge traffic into the second week of September. 

For the year to date, the port’s docks have handled 265 barges, down 7 percent from last year. Commodity tonnage is down 9 percent. Steel coil activity, which is typically more than 50 percent of the port’s overall activity, is off by 47 percent. “The Arkansas River is generally in good shape, and water levels are adequate; the channel is dredged and the Corps has done a good job of managing the infrastructure,” Day said.

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River System has five public ports: Pine Bluff, Little Rock and Fort Smith in Arkansas, and Muskogee and the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma. Systemwide tonnage by category for the first nine months of 2021, with the percentage change from the same period in 2020, are as follows:

• Sand, gravel, rock: 2.751 million tons (up 2 percent)

• Chemical fertilizer: 1.589 million tons (up 12 percent)

• Wheat: 912,399 tons (down 3 percent)

• Iron and steel: 760,404 tons (up 10 percent)

• Soybeans: 537,572 tons (down 25 percent)

Day agreed that labor costs are behind many of the transportation issues, both on and off the rivers. “Barge inventory is down in the river, and transportation costs are increasing, which has affected overall tonnage in the system,” he said. “The system’s tonnage will be down significantly at the end of the year.  In terms of workforce, it is a huge issue in the river and in many employment sectors across the nation. As a country, we must find a way to grow the number of willing and qualified applicants to meet these labor demands, or the river industry will become uncompetitive.  Of course, we are seeing this same labor issue in rail and trucking.”