W.Va. Port Developers Plan For COB Service
Developers of the Port of West Virginia, a multifunctional, transmodal inland port terminal on the Ohio River in the city of Follansbee, are seeking public and private investments for the port and surrounding property with plans to institute what may become the first container-on-barge service on the Ohio River.
Empire Diversified Energy’s wholly owned subsidiary, Empire Trimodal Terminal LLC, is developing the roughly 1,000-acre complex at Ohio River Mile 70 into what is expected to become one of the largest inland river ports and distribution hubs in the United States, shipping goods throughout the Midwest. Much of the property was the site of a Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and RG Steel mill in past decades.
Empire President Scott Ewusiak previously said it will be “a full-service facility” and will include a bulk and breakbulk containers terminal, heavy-lift pad, roll-on/roll-off dock, container storage, liquids transfer and storage, climate-controlled storage buildings and available office space.
The port will have the capability of offloading breakbulk shipping containers, dry goods, aggregate sand and liquids as well as having its own on-site facilities for frac water and wastewater treatment, he said. It will have 6 million gallons of liquid storage capacity and heavy-lift capabilities of up to 500 tons per pick.
The Empire Riverfront Complex includes the Port of West Virginia on an 80-acre parcel expected to expand to 130 acres by the end of the fourth quarter this year; an eco-friendly, 250,000 ton-a-year pig iron “mini-mill”; a facility that uses the green energy process of pyrolysis to recycle medical waste into gas and power; and a petrochemical storage facility.
In speaking to local officials, Empire has estimated that when fully developed, the site could employ as many as 400 people full-time directly and even more jobs indirectly. Additionally, developers said the projects are “green” in nature with a focus on sustainability.
Multifunctional, Transmodal Terminal
To date, Empire has invested $75 million in the complex, Empire Diversified Energy CEO Frank Rosso said. That includes a $26 million dock and wharf bond offering from the West Virginia Development Authority in December 2020, a $20 million bridge loan for a solid waste recycling facility, $4 million in private financing for the purchase of the 32-acre former Koppers Inc. chemical plant property and a $25 million bridge loan for Green Generation, the medical waste recycling business being constructed at the site.
The company has also asked the state of West Virginia for $42 million in infrastructure upgrades. On March 30, Empire received notification from Sen. Joe Manchin’s office that the complex has been awarded $4 million in congressionally directed spending for port infrastructure upgrades.
Rosso said Empire expects to close on an anticipated $200 million in investments in the coming years, including an estimated $125 million in the next 12 months.
Currently, Empire offloads metallurgical coal for some companies at the site and has been recycling scrap metals. The company also has been working with Mountain State Carbon, a division of Cleveland Cliffs Steel, loading coke and coke products. Mountain State has announced it is closing its Follansbee facility, however.
“Our port is basically going through a full transition,” Rosso said. “We’re going to transition into a fully diversified Midwest distribution facility for all kinds of products.”
Those are likely to include intermodal transportation of aluminum ingots and steel coils along with fertilizer, Rosso said.
One idea Empire is extremely excited about is the institution of a container-on-barge service.
“Our plan is to help support a [container] ferry service,” Rosso said.
He envisions a service that would originate in the Gulf Coast region with stops at major cities. Those could include Memphis and St. Louis on the Mississippi along with Cincinnati on the Ohio, with the Port of West Virginia the furthest point reached upstream.
“We service a very large metropolitan area that I think would love that ability to have that container-on-barge service,” Rosso said. “We’re getting a lot of positive response from everybody we talk to.”
Potential customers could include Walmart, Amazon and other companies with existing fulfillment centers within a 20-minute drive of the port, he said.
Rosso said companies have been waiting for years for such a service, and with so many containers waiting lengthy periods at West Coast ports, it is economically feasible to move forward with a Gulf Coast container barge ferry service now.
“Instead of waiting, I think the time has come to take action,” Rosso said.
He added, “We think we can at least serve as an option. It may take 20 days to get up the Mississippi, but at the same time if you’re sitting in a [West Coast] port, waiting 30 days to get on a railcar, it might be a viable option.”
For some companies, moving containers by barge could represent a logistics savings of 25 to 30 percent.
“I think timing could not be better with the current logistics issues we’re having and the supply chain shortages and the cost of goods,” Rosso said. “A lot of your inland options are confined to rail, and the rails are so congested and so high-priced.”
Port of West Virginia Executive Director Joe DiBarlotomeo added, “We think we can start grabbing the market before a lot of other folks get into it.”
DiBartolomeo said the location of the Port of West Virginia is ideal because it allows container barges to be shuttled upriver from the Gulf and then unloaded before they reach the locks and dams on the Upper Ohio.
“We’re in a location where we can unload those barges before we get into the major locks and dams,” DiBartolomeo said. “We think we have a huge market for the containers.”
Additionally, major highways connect to Pittsburgh, which also has airport access, and Columbus. Akron and Cleveland are within a 100-mile radius. Other areas easily within reach could include parts of West Virginia, western New York, Michigan and even Canada, DiBartolomeo said.
Additionally, the plant is centrally located where Shell Oil is completing an ethane cracker plant just north of the port on the Ohio River and where PTT Global is expected to build an ethane cracker plant just south of the port, also on the Ohio River.
Already, he said, the port is getting into the details of loading, offloading and finding customers and suppliers. Port officials also hope to sign agreements soon with undisclosed ports along the Gulf Coast with which they have been in discussion.
Other prospective customers have asked about the potential for unloading steel coils and slabs and fertilizer at the port.
Port Expansions Planned
DiBartolomeo said the port has the capability of moving containers now at two separate areas along the riverfront but that planned investments will make it easier to expand operations.
Plans call for construction of a sheet-pile wall to be built in phases to provide 8,000 linear feet of contiguous riverfront access. It will have mooring ties and at least 150 feet of concrete dockage with cranes for loading and unloading barges, DiBartolomeo said.
The port now has a full-time engineer, and the contract for the first 3,600 linear feet of sheet-pile wall will soon to go out for bid, he said, adding that the first concrete could be poured within about six to nine months.
The port previously had 50 berths for single barges but has permits in hand to build an additional 37 three-barge berths. That would allow capacity for up to 111 barges to be tied up and unloaded at the same time once the sheet-pile wall is complete, he said.
Additionally, although the riverfront site already contains 20,000 feet of rail spur lines directly connected to the Norfolk Southern Railway, nearly 2,000 linear feet of additional rail will be constructed, providing access to the river docking facilities.
“We’ve engineered space for warehousing and laydown yards for bulk and breakbulk,” DiBartolomeo said, adding that he anticipates the need for allocating space for warehousing, especially on the port-adjacent property Empire owns.
Of the acreage at the port itself, DiBartolomeo said the plan is to devote at least half of it to container-on-barge business.
“My focus initially is on container traffic and space for containers,” he said.
Empire and the Port of West Virginia are looking for about $62 million in investments to wrap up the first two phases of construction at the port, DiBartolomeo said.
That could be a mixture of public and private funds.
Initial needs are for $20 million for the sheet-pile wall construction, $10 million for the concrete apron and another $10-15 million for security and lighting systems.
Empire is also working closely with Norfolk Southern regarding placement of the additional rail spur and with MonPower about burying power lines extending across the riverfront property to establish clearance for cranes loading and unloading barges.
Rosso said Empire is also looking at applying for available federal grant programs, including for INFRA and RAISE grants. Empire has also recently hosted site visits from legislators, including West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who visited the port site April 21.