The year 2021 was a dramatic year in infrastructure developments, with much of the action turning on efforts by the administration of incoming President Joe Biden to overturn or reverse measures passed by its predecessor.
The year began with a big win for waterways interests as the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA 2020) made it into a massive package Congress passed to fund the government and provide coronavirus relief to the American people in December 2020. “What a day this has been!” the National Waterways Conference (NWC) exclaimed in a news alert crediting the actions of its members with saving the legislation. According to the NWC alert, the 11th-hour drama grew out of concerns over changes to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, a major goal for some.
The American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) hailed the inclusion of its “long-sought reforms to more fairly allocate and spend revenues from the Harbor Maintenance Tax.” “This historic, landmark legislation has been at the forefront of AAPA’s advocacy efforts for decades to improve America’s economy, infrastructure and competitiveness,” AAPA President and CEO Christopher Connor said.
Connor said the agreement allows the spending down of the roughly $9.3 billion balance in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, starting with $500 million in year one and an additional $100 million in annual spending until the $1 billion amount is reached in year five. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said he was “particularly proud that this legislation achieves my decades-long mission to unlock the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.”
Inland Waterways Users Board
On January 30, a memo from the incoming secretary of defense ordered that 40 named federal advisory committees cease operations and that the terms of serving members end immediately. The memo applied to all Department of Defense advisory committees that are not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The Inland Waterways Users Board, because it is sponsored by the Secretary of the Army, was included on the list.
According to news accounts, the motive behind the memo was to purge some of the advisory committees of last-minute appointees installed by outgoing President Donald Trump, including controversial high-profile friends and associates of the former president. The IWUB got swept up in the controversy, even though it was not involved in any of the issues motivating the memo; none of its members were appointed by Trump. But its operations were suspended for months as the Department of Homeland Security performed its “zero-based reviews” of the various committees.
At this writing, the IWUB has been formally reinstated, but all its members still have to reapply for their positions. The committee is hoping to get back to its important work in advising the Corps of Engineers in infrastructure investment in January.
Infrastructure advocates often feel that their issue is an orphan with lots of friends but no “forever family.” Both parties say they support it, and certain infrastructure bills get bipartisan supporte even when the two parties are fighting about other issues.
And yet infrastructure spending continues to lag. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases its “infrastructure report card” grading various elements in American infrastructure, including roads, bridges, ports, electrical grids and, yes, the inland waterways, including locks and dams. It’s always a major media event, with lots of fodder for op-eds and statements of support from politicians.
The ASCE released another report cared in 2021, giving America’s infrastructure an overall grade of C-. Ports rated a B- overall, but the inland waterways got a dismal D+, despite recent examples of progress like the completion of Olmsted Locks and Dam and a slight acceleration of funding from Congress in recent years.
Was 2021 going to be different when it came to real infrastructure investment? The Biden administration came into office with an agenda of differentiating itself from the previous administration. But the elections had left it with a 50-50 split in the Senate and a razor-thin majority of only eight members in the House of Representatives. For most things the Democrats wanted to do, they would need at least some Republican support.
Donald Trump had supported infrastructure verbally, including paying welcome attention to waterways infrastructure. But he failed to get any major infrastructure legislation passed during his stormy tenure, partly because his privatization proposals didn’t go down well with many interests, including some that otherwise supported him.
A welcome development for many was the return of congressional earmarks in March 2021, a practice that Congress had prohibited itself from practicing for 10 years, as a response to alleged corruption. The earmark ban had always been controversial, and earmarks had both opponents and supporters from both parties. In the past, many important waterways projects have been funded through earmarks with no suggestion of impropriety.
Supporters of their return argued that the ban surrendered too many of Congress’ constitutional prerogatives and transferred them to the executive branch instead. Additional safeguards added by Congress include expanding transparency by disclosing the member requesting earmarks and the recipients, identifying any connections the earmark has to the legislator or his/her family, capping the number of earmarks, and limiting the types of recipients who are eligible, among other requirements.
Memphis Bridge Crack
As if to highlight the urgency of infrastructure spending, in May, a vital bridge in Memphis that crossed the Mississippi River was shut down due to the discovery of a 2-inch crack in a supporting beam. The Hernando de Soto Bridge, which carries Interstate 40 over the Mississippi River, was shut down for repairs May 11 after a routine inspection found a structural crack, interrupting barge traffic as well as bridge traffic. A bridge inspector who had failed to report it was fired. A subsequent investigation reveals that the crack likely had been in place since the beam was installed. The Coast Guard reopened the Mississippi River for barge traffic May 14; the bridge itself was reopened for vehicle traffic July 31, four days ahead of schedule.
Passing an infrastructure bill was one of the Biden administration’s top priorities. Because the term “infrastructure” always polls well, the administration decided to use the term “human infrastructure” to refer to items like providing home nursing care and child care for single mothers. It bundled those items together with “hard infrastructure” items like the repair of bridges, roads, water systems and electrical grids. This sparked debate and criticism from some who claimed the bill should be only about “hard” infrastructure, while other measures that weren’t about infrastructure should be debated separately.
The initial infrastructure bill also included long-desired Democratic measures opposed by Republicans like increasing the top corporate tax rate back to 28 percent from 21 percent. Republicans also objected to the inclusion of “Green New Deal” climate measures as part of the infrastructure bill.
A major obstacle, however, proved to be two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a major coal-producing state, and Krystin Sinema of Arizona. Both had serious reservations about the amount of spending in the bill, especially after three COVID relief bills had been passed that totaled $4 trillion in spending. With a 50-50 Senate split, their cooperation was essential. The intra-party deadlock over the infrastructure bill was a dramatic game of Washington brinkmanship played out on Twitter and in the media.
In the end, after much sound and fury, a modified infrastructure bill passed with 19 Republicans supporting, and six Democrats opposing it for not doing enough about climate. Originally priced at more than $2 trillion, negotiations reduced it to a little more than $1 trillion. The bill’s opponents managed to strip away some of the “soft infrastructure” elements.
Whatever was included or not as “infrastructure,” no one doubted that locks, dams and waterways infrastructure belonged, and longtime advocates for waterway infrastructure, like Waterways Council Inc., strongly supported those parts of the bill that included waterways investment.
Throughout the controversies, the part of the bill dealing with waterways remained relatively unchanged, with about $2.5 billion targeted for waterways projects, some of which could fund some important lock and dam projects to completion.
The year 2021 was supposed to be the year that we’d get over the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of the year, that prospect looked promising. In December 2020 and January 2021, the first doses of new vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna reached the arms of healthcare workers and first responders. The initial supply of vaccine was in high demand, and in the first quarter of the year, it was a high-stakes game for many to find vaccination appointments. Initially, vaccine eligibility was restricted to high-risk workers and the elderly, with the eligible groups expanding as the spring wore on and more doses became available. Some people drove hundreds of miles to get their shots as early as possible.
In the maritime industry, The American Waterways Operators worked with other groups to urge priority access to the vaccine for mariners.
By late spring, the supply of vaccine started to catch up with demand, and on May 1, everyone 16 and older who wanted a shot was eligible to get one, with vaccine clinics opening up all over the country.
It looked like the pandemic had been beaten back. Waterways industry meetings that had been held virtually for more than a year started to return to in-person gatherings, and people seemed eager to get back to normal. The Inland Marine Expo in May, presented by The Waterways Journal, was one of the first to return to fully live, and attendance was nearly at pre-pandemic levels.
But then two things happened. One, the pace of vaccinations slowed as an increasing number of people decided that they didn’t want to get the shots, and especially resisted any efforts to mandate vaccinations. And two, a more contagious and more virulent variant of the COVID virus, called Delta, appeared, and quickly became the dominant strain in the U.S. and around the world. Suddenly, the pandemic had caught a new wave, and infections and hospitalizations spiked as they had done a year earlier when the virus took hold. Late in the year, yet another variant, called Omicron, appeared and was said to be even more contagious than Delta. As of this writing, however, it appeared that the available vaccines still offer protection against all of the variants.
The U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System COVID-19 Working Group reported on a study late in the year that found that mariners reported they have experienced mental stresses from the pandemic, but they are faring about as well as other essential workers.
Through it all, though, essential industry kept operating. The barges kept moving. The year wasn’t the busiest on the waterways in recent memory, but it wasn’t the slowest, either.
On the shipyard side, this year produced slightly fewer new boats than previous years, and for those towing companies that did build new vessels, many chose to put them into service quietly rather than have christening ceremonies in the time of a pandemic.
Still, there was a lot of interesting news in the area of vessel and barge construction, with some innovative new boats appearing and some truly exciting vessels planned for the near future.
McGinnis Inc. christened the mv. Dwain Harper in February, built at the firm’s Sheridan Shipyard. The vessel features a unique, rounded, retractable pilothouse with floor to ceiling windows all around the pilot.
In April, Blakely BoatWorks, the shipbuilding subsidiary of Cooper/T.Smith, delivered the mv. Gretchen V. Cooper to sister company Cooper Marine & Timberlands; it was the United States’ first linehaul towing vessel to be powered by Tier 4 Caterpillar high-speed engines with selective catalytic reduction.
Vessel Repair, a shipyard in Port Arthur, Texas, announced in May that it had been awarded a patent for its Pacesetter class of pushboats. The new design is a combination of single- and double-hulled chines. In November, Blessey Marine Services christened the mv. Laura Blessey Todd, which was built with the new hull.
At the Inland Marine Expo in May, Arcosa introduced a patented new barge specifically designed to carry containers. The heavily built barges feature spaced 12-inch pedestals to spread out the weight-bearing areas. Each 70- by 200-foot barge can carry 72 40-foot containers, about 40 more than two hopper barges would be able to handle, using the same space in a tow.
Crowley Maritime Corporation announced in July that it will build a fully electric, zero-emissions tug.
And in late November, Maritime Partners and e1 Marine unveiled what they called a “future-fueled” towboat, to be powered by hydrogen converted onboard from methanol. Called Hydrogen One, the boat is expected to enter service in 2023. It will be built from a design by Elliott Bay Design Group, using technology from ABB. The vessel promised sharply reduced emissions from a fuel source that is more readily available than LNG and easier to transport than hydrogen.
When Hurricane Ida came ashore at Grand Isle and Port Fourchon in southeast Louisiana on August 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making its landfall, it had even more of an effect on the maritime industry than the previous storm, some mariners reported.
Ships in the vicinity of the Bonnet Carré Spillway were pushed aground, with numerous reports of towboats taking on water, and damage was widespread.
Many secured their vessels as best they could before riding out the storm on them. There were several reports of crews having to abandon ship and seek shelter aboard barges. Amazingly, there were no reports of deaths among the mariners in Ida’s path. Seamen’s Church Institute chaplains deployed in the aftermath to provide critical incident stress management (CISM) intervention and pastoral care.
Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. and a central barometric pressure of 929 millibars, making it one of the strongest storms to ever make landfall on the Louisiana coast. Towing vessels stationed in the area clocked wind gusts of 179 mph., the strongest ever recorded in the United States. The storm maintained much of its strength far inland, with the eye of the storm passing directly over portions of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Lower Mississippi River, where it tossed barges, towboats and ships alike and brought navigation and waterway-based industry to a halt.
“Everybody’s pulling together, pulling barges off of hillsides and out of trees and making sure things will float and getting them back to their proper holding areas or proper fleeting areas,” Steve Alley, vice president of sales for Ingram Barge Company, summarized as the only towboat company representative able to attend a panel discussion at a virtual Kentucky riverport freight conference that turned into an impromptu question and answer session about the damage from the hurricane.
To the relief of all, New Orleans’ newly repaired and fortified levee system withstood the onslaught. Coastal barrier islands did experience storm surges, and some communities were left uninhabitable. Areas not covered by the flood protection system also experienced floods. Regional electrical utility Entergy reported 30,000 downed poles, and Corps of Engineers volunteers were among those who responded to help restore power in the aftermath.
The Coast Guard declared the Lower Mississippi River open September 3 after clearing several downed power lines and surveying the channel. Ports also worked toward recovery, with the most extensive damage at the Port of South Louisiana, where “just about everything at the port sustained some type of damage but it all appeared to be fixable,” executive director Paul Aucoin said. Although the port was still without power as of September 8, Aucoin said he hoped to be able to service a ship September 10.
Representatives from the ports of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Fourchon, Morgan City, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, South Louisiana and Terrebonne sent a letter to President Joe Biden September 7 asking for port infrastructure and waterway support to be included in congressional funding for storm recovery.
Although the Delta Queen steamboat did not receive major structural damage, the intense winds did cause some harm. In a social media post September 15, the Delta Queen Steamboat Company updated followers, saying the floating National Historic Landmark took a direct hit at its mooring in Houma, La., and it was subject to winds in excess of 150 mph. for more than an hour. The hurricane ripped away the waterproofing membrane on the roof, along with several sections of handrail along the stern, the company said. Additionally, several doors were damaged, and about a dozen windows were broken.
Ida slowed or halted grain exports from the Lower Mississippi River in Texas and Louisiana for weeks afterward. Multiple grain elevators were damaged, with the Cargill elevator in Reserve, La., expected to be offline for several months undergoing extensive repairs to loading equipment. With the soybean and corn harvests underway, barge rates soared in the wake of the hurricane.
As of September 19, the Corps deemed all obstructions on the Houma Navigation Canal removed, but the Coast Guard continued to coordinate operations with the Corps to identify and remove waterway obstructions throughout the region in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which was closed from Mile 18-20 and from Mile 21-33 into October due to shoaling.
On November 8, Phillips 66 announced that damage to its Alliance Refinery in Belle Chasse, La., was so severe that the company planned to convert it for use as a terminal facility in 2022 rather than repair it. The refinery employed 500 people and an additional 400 contractors and was Plaquemines Parish’s largest employer.
The year saw its share of merger and acquisition activities, as well as several new companies hitting the waterways. Some of the highlights:
• In January, Encore Dredging, a newly formed specialty dredging and marine infrastructure services firm, announced that it had acquired Inland Dredging Company of Dyersberg, Tenn.
• Centerline Logistics, formerly Harley Marine Services, announced it had acquired Saltchuk Marine Services’ California refueling business.
• Petroleum Service Corporation acquired Fryoux Tankerman Service, a shoreside tankerman company with operations along the Gulf Coast region.
• Bruce Oakley Inc. acquired the Cahokia, Ill.-based grain terminal of American Milling LP.
• Southern Towing Company announced February 2 it had acquired Devall Towing and its fleet of 36 towboats and 125 tank barges, as well as fleeting locations in Lake Charles, La., and Victoria, Texas. Devall Towing, which was founded in 1952, will continue to operate under the Devall brand, and the management team will continue in current roles, Southern said.
• In February, Calumet River Fleeting leased the TPG Chicago Dry Dock as part of an agreement in which Calumet expects to buy the facility early in 2022.
• Zen-Noh Grain announced April 1 that it would sell 11 grain facilities to Viserion Grain LLC; the facilities were expected to be required by the U.S. Department of Justice to be divested in connection with its review of Zen-Noh’s acquisition of multiple grain facilities from Bunge, announced a year earlier. The facilities are located at Shawneetown, Ill.; Huffman, Ark.; Osceola, Ark. (riverside and landside); Helena, Ark.; Lake Providence, La.; McGregor, Iowa; Lettsworth, La.; and three of ZGC’s affiliate, Consolidated Grain & Barge Company assets in Caruthersville, Mo., Cottonwood Point, Mo. and Savanna, Ill.
• Bollinger Shipyards announced in April that it had acquired the assets and long-term contracts of Gulf Island Shipyard Inc., including a 437-acre waterfront facility in Houma, La.
• Fast-growing Encore Dredging announced another acquisition in April, of RLB Contracting’s dredging division assets.
• Castlen Steel and American River Transportation Company partnered for barge fleeting and cleaning services in the Owensboro, Ky., and Rockport, Ind., areas, and announced they were building a new fertilizer terminal and warehouse.
• S&B Infrastructure Ltd. acquired New Orleans engineering and naval architecture firm Technology Associates Inc.
• Terminal and logistics company Enstructure announced in June that it was acquiring Patriot Port Holdings LLC, and then in November that it had acquired Port Contractors and its affiliates.
• St. Louis coatings manufacturer Carboline Company acquired the business of Dudick Inc. of Streetsboro, Ohio.
• James Marine announced in July that its affiliate Big River Wheels LLC had purchased Big River Propeller LLC of LaCenter, Ky.
• On September 1, Terral RiverService acquired the assets of Vidalia Dock & Storage Company, Two-J Ranch Inc., 363 Dry-Dock & Repair LLC and Natchez Marine & Towing Inc., which are the premier fleet and yard operators in the Vidalia, La., and Natchez, Miss., areas. According to Terral, the acquisition includes a total of four towboats, a drydock and a rock yard.
• Crosby Tugs LLC formed a new division, called Float Freight, to expand its cargo-handling services, both project cargoes and container-on-barge on the inland waterways, initially offering direct service from New Orleans, Mobile, Cameron, La., and Mexico.
• Plaquemines Port, Harbor and Terminal District announced in November an agreement with APM terminals for APM to become the operator of the planned container and intermodal terminal at the port.
• Lastly, a day after announcing an innovative methanol/hydrogen-fueled towboat, Maritime Partners announced December 1 that it had acquired the portfolio of J. Russell Flowers Inc., including more than 1,000 marine vessels operating on bareboat charter. With the acquisition, the Maritime Partners portfolio grew to approximately 1,600 vessels, making it the largest lessor of marine equipment in the United States.
Carp Fight Expanded
The fight against invasive Asian carp expanded in 2021, with efforts expended not only to contain their spread but also to remove them where they have already taken a foothold.
The 2020 Water Resources Development Act, passed in late December 2020, included $45 million for carp eradication. That included $25 million inserted by U.S. Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for the Asian Carp Pilot Program, requiring that up to 10 projects must be deployed in the Cumberland or Tennessee watersheds. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation said the allocation could potentially fund three to five Asian carp barriers using sounds, lights and bubbles to try to stop the fish from moving upwater through the watersheds. WRDA also included funds to establish the Asian Carp Eradication Program, with $4 million a year through 2025 allocated to the program and priority given to states in the Tennessee and Cumberland watersheds.
Preventing Asian carp from spreading into the Great Lakes remained a focus, and the governors of Illinois and Michigan announced the signing of a carp barrier funding agreement January 7 to install a new barrier at Brandon Road Lock and Dam on the Illinois River toward that effort. The technology will include an electronic barrier as well as underwater sounds, an air bubble curtain and a flushing lock in a newly engineered channel designed to prevent the carp from moving while allowing barge passage. Illinois will be able to use up to $8 million in funds appropriated previously by the Michigan legislature to support pre-construction engineering and design.
In January and February, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey conducted experiments in Kentucky Lake, an impoundment of the Tennessee River, using herding stimuli and underwater sonar to test how Asian carp react to being driven. They also wanted to gauge the effectiveness of using the so-called Modified Unified Method in the lake. Twelve researchers on five boats removed 38,000 pounds of carp as part of the effort. On September 2, Lyon County (Ky.) Judge-Executive Wade White, displeased with the results, wrote a letter to McConnell asking him to prevent the method from returning to Kentucky waters, saying incentives given to commercial fishermen were much more successful in removing carp. In November, he drew attention to one fisherman using a new method, dubbed trap netting, that allowed one crew of commercial fishermen to remove 27,000 pounds of Asian carp from Lake Barkley in four hours with a by-catch of two native fish species, which he said were released unharmed. He has asked for state subsidies to be expanded to include the new harvest method and in the meantime put together a county subsidy with help from a donor. White announced December 9 that McConnell successfully asked for the suspension of using the Modified Unified Method in Kentucky waters as a result.
Efforts to combat the carp on the Upper Mississippi River are also underway, with a test of a temporary acoustic deterrent system installed at Lock 19 on February 3. Beginning April 5, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conducted a joint intensive carp-harvesting operation with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to remove Asian carp from Pool 8 of the Mississippi River. That effort used the Modified Unified Method, testing it for the first time as an early detection and rapid response technique.
Finally, in what may have been our favorite story in the WJ pages this year, O.H. Ingram River Aged Whiskey debuted two new products early in the year, O.H.Ingram River Aged Straight Whiskey and River Aged Straight Rye, both of which are aged in a floating rickhouse built into a barge at Wickliffe, Ky. The movement of the water and the heating and cooling of the barge during day and night provoke “a unique reaction between woods and spirit,” said Hank Ingram, founder and proprietor of the company. The Ingram name, of course, is well-known in the waterways industry, and although Hank Ingram shares some ancestors with the barge company of the same name, the spirit company is not affiliated with the barge company in any way.
Still, even though O.H. Ingram is vastly different from most of the firms you see on the waterways, we say, “Welcome to the river business!”
Shelley Byrne, David Murray and John Shoulberg contributed to this article.