Maritime Risk Symposium Focuses On Inland Waterways

Top leaders of the Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers gathered with high-level academics, researchers and waterways and port industry professionals for the 12th annual Maritime Risk Symposium on November 15-17 at the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., the largest national laboratory in the Midwest by size and scope, just outside of Chicago.

The symposium, which was both virtual and in-person, was structured around a series of information-packed panels that address issues critical to the Maritime Transportation System (MTS). This year’s theme was “The Importance of Inland Systems to the Maritime Transportation System.” Panels featured experts in cyber-security, economics, systems analysis and transportation systems. Panelists discussed topics such as decarbonization in the maritime world, threats to the MTS related to climate change, natural disasters and infrastructure needs and how best to train “cyberwarriors” in both the maritime service academies and among merchant marine crews to detect and prevent cyberthreats. 

The first day’s keynote address was given by Coast Guard Adm. Richard Timme, current commander of District 8, which spans 28 states and embraces the bulk of the western rivers.  As a former assistant commandant for prevention policy, where he was responsible for the development of national policy, standards and programs for waterways management, navigation and boating safety, ports and facilities, merchant mariner credentialing, marine casualty investigation, commercial vessel inspections and port state control, Timme is ideally placed to speak about risks to the maritime system. It was his third time addressing the symposium.  

Timme began by reminding attendees that District 8 was merged with District 2 in 1996 precisely to encourage the embracing of the Mississippi River system under one command and regulatory framework. About 70 percent of the barge fleet of the western rivers is within his jurisdiction. The capacity of that system is currently reduced by about 50 percent, he said, as drafts of barge tows are reduced from 11 feet to 9 feet, and tow sizes are reduced to 20 barges. “It’s happening at the worst time for farmers,” he said—but he noted that the system is moving, even if reduced. 

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Timme said that when Subchapter M was beginning to be developed, in what proved to be a 10-year process, the inland waterways had about 7,000 vessels to be regulated. Today, that number has shrunk to about 4,700 as vessels have been retired rather than be brought into compliance, with about 3,200 within D8. 

Getting Nimble

At the end of that Subchapter M process, he said, COVID-19 happened, changing the maritime risk profile. “We had to get real nimble, real quick,” he said, detailing responsive measures that included waiving some regulatory requirements and easing mariners’ recertification requirements. He noted the differences between a regulation and a statute, saying, “I can waive a regulation, but a statute is a firewall.” His district also conducted enforcement hiatuses from certain requirements of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the COVID lockdowns. 

Timme noted that the regulatory landscape doesn’t yet exist to regulate many of the new technologies set to transform the MTS—such as autonomous vessels, molten salt reactors and alternative fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia.

He highlighted the importance of the MTS to the country by recalling the Coast Guard’s response to Hurricane Ida. Billions of dollars in infrastructure investments around the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina had hardened the area, so this time around Coast Guard crews were not doing rooftop rescues. But power lines were still down, some in the river itself, and parts of the river system were shut down. “The calls I was getting from Washington, D.C., all had one question: ‘When are you opening the river?’ ” he recalled. Teams had to use explosives to clear some downed towers and other infrastructure to get rivers reopened. 

The current low water has raised shipping costs for farmers four or five times above normal, Timme said, with 50 ships waiting in the Gulf of Mexico for grain. “Below St. Louis, grain has nowhere else to go but downriver,” he said. Putting Gulf grain deliveries in doubt shifts global commodity markets. In normal times, he said, it’s cheaper to get a bushel of corn from Iowa to China than from South America to China—but not right now. 

Operational Risk

Speaking of operational risks to the Coast Guard itself from climate change, Timme said the Coast Guard has had to reposition assets away from certain areas because of increased risk of flooding or hurricanes. “We’re losing homeports for some Coast Guard cutters because there’s not enough water to support them,” he said. A Coast Guard station at Grand Isle, La., had to be relocated after being hit by Hurricane Ida. 

In the Q&A period, Timme was blunt about what it would take to respond more rapidly to increased risks. After a questioner asked if it would take another 10 years to develop new regulations, as it did for Sub M, he replied, “We will not succeed if we wait on the Administrative Procedures Act.” 

When another questioner asked if he could share stories of successful “flexing through” risks by adjusting regulations, Timme paused a long time before answering: “The short answer is no. What moves things quickly is politics. When 34 people died aboard the research dive vessel Conception [in 2019 off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, Calif.], we got the Subchapter T regulations revised in one year; they had not been updated for 25 years. When Congress says, ‘Go do,’ things happen.” Timme quoted a Coast Guard colleague who said, “Regulations are written in blood.”

He did note, however, that design-build agreements the Coast Guard is executing for some of its new vessels do show some regulatory flexibility. 

Record Investment—But Still Outpaced by Need

The keynote speaker November 16 was Maj. Gen Diana Holland, commander of the Mississippi Valley Engineer Division, headquartered in Vicksburg, Miss. Holland began by recommending Peter Zeihan’s 2016 best-seller The Accidental Superpower, which shows how the rise of the U.S. to world power status was crucially dependent on its natural wealth of inland waterway transportation systems, paired with the world’s richest farmland. Holland contrasted America’s situation of containing the Mississippi River watershed within our own borders, and having friendly countries on either side, with China’s situation where its major rivers lead into other countries where they are equally important, causing many conflicts over water rights and usage. 

But despite our good fortune, the U.S. river systems do have their challenges, she said. Holland displayed photos showing the 2011 flood versus today’s low water at Cairo, Ill.—a depth difference of 56 feet, demonstrating the river system’s volatility.  Holland said the 2011 flood set new records in some areas,  with the next year, 2012, seeing drought.  Even in years that don’t reach flood level, sustained high-water periods can keep needed maintenance from being done on river structures, she said. 

2022 Dredging

Holland displayed a chart that showed how the construction of river training structures has drastically reduced the need for dredging, “although it still seems like a lot of dredging,” she acknowledged. This year alone, the Corps’ nine dredges have moved 8 million cubic yards of material. Six more contract dredges are available at need, and the Corps has spent $27 million since mid-September alone on dredging and related costs of keeping the rivers open. “We are ready and postured for worst-case scenarios,” she said. She said costs of keeping the river open could rise as high as $120 million by mid-December, “but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the big picture.” 

Holland said she believed the 9-foot channel of the Mississippi River could be kept open through mid-January, and she noted some relief from recent rains, with more precipitation predicted.  

In response to a question about funding, Holland noted that most funding the Corps gets is designated for specific uses. She said thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act, the Mississippi Valley Division alone has gotten as much funding as the entire Corps used to get 10 years ago. “Congress has been very generous lately,” she conceded. “There has been record investment in the waterways system in the past decade”—but she added that the need is still outpacing funding. Cost growth of projects has been a challenge, as some projects already authorized and funded have had to be “descoped” and their costs recalculated. 

Maintenance And Operational Requirements

The third panel November 16 was titled “Keeping the Inland Waterways Open – Balancing Maintenance and Operational Requirements.”  Panelists included Tom Heinold, chief of the operations division of the Rock Island Engineer District; Dr. Craig Philip, civil and engineering professor at Vanderbilt University and former CEO of Ingram Barge Company who retired in 2014; and Guy Allen, senior economist with the International Grains Program Institute at Kansas State University. 

In a presentation titled “Past as Prologue,” Heinold’s task was to review the history of navigational improvements in the river systems, from the beginning of the federal role in the waterways in 1824, through the development of snagboats, the Corps’ involvement in completing the Panama Canal, to the building of wicket dams in the 1930s. He showed pictures of an early wicket dam and wicket boat, noting that it was completed in only three years—while the Olmsted Lock and Dam took three decades to complete. “But of course, we did not have the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the 1930s,” he said. Back then, the safety of a lock and dam project was measured by how few workers were killed. 

Heinold showed a slide of a tainter gate, which is made to virtually the same design today as in the 1930s, although materials have greatly improved. “Some tainter gates installed 38 years ago are already rusted through, even though they were supposed to have a 50-year design life,” he said. Modern composite materials instead of oak are five times stronger than they need to be and don’t rust, he said. They even have an extra “sacrificial” layer of material to account for wear.

Heinold showed funding charts showing the “fix as fail” period from the 1990s through the 2000s, the period of the 2010s when funding at least “stemmed the tide,” and the improved funding from the 2010s through the present, when some progress has been made toward capital reinvestment. Before the recent funding spikes, he said, it was as if the owner of a $30,000 car was spending only $69 a year on maintenance; “We were keeping the system together with duct tape and baling wire.” The IIJA is part of the answer, he said, but “our backlog maintenance list is still longer than the funding we’ve received.” He showed photos of Lagrange Lock on the Illinois Waterway to demonstrate how the Corps does major rehab with the least amount of disruption to industry. In a recent photo of the lock at Lagrange, only one building and the dam itself were original; the rest was replaced, including gate panels fabricated off-site and shipped to the site to minimize closures.

Heinold went through scheduled closures in the Illinois Waterway and revealed that some work received no bids because all the equipment of potential bidders is being used at full capacity already. He ran through scheduled Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program work, including the $732 million allocated for Lock 25 on the Mississippi River and $97 million for the fish passage at Lock and Dam 22. He raised a laugh when he said that if you wanted to prank someone, have them meet you at “Lock 23”—which was never built after designers concluded it wasn’t needed. 

Commodity Markets

Allen showed how barge disruptions affect commodity markets and prices around the world. He explained benchmark tariff rates—referring to the year 1976, when freight markets were partly deregulated, but whose rates are still used as a reference point. In October at Peoria, Ill., rates were as high as 2,000 percent above tariff, but have since dropped back to a more “normal” (but still high) 500 percent of tariff.

Allen said ethanol plants need a constant supply of feedstock, which can only economically come by barge. A 1-foot decrease in river barge depths equals 5,000 bushels of lost cargo. 

Allen said the barges are normally 2.5 times more efficient than rail, and nine times more efficient than trucks. Commodity exchanges around the world base their prices on Chicago Board of Trade prices, so disruptions to barge traffic have global implications for commodity prices around the world. Grain-importing countries have shifted to Brazil, the European Union and other sources to replace U.S. Gulf grain. 

Philip discussed the research project a team under his direction did at Vanderbilt to assess risks to pipelines—part of a larger study at Vanderbilt’s Transportation Center on threats to transportation modes. Philip’s team chose the Colonial Pipeline, which supplies natural gas to Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. Before the pipeline spur was opened in 1980, all the gasoline and petroleum of the three cities was barged in, a business that Ingram helped develop. By 2010 nearly all petroleum products were delivered by pipeline, but since 2012, certain markets diversified sources back to barge again. 

In the middle of Philip’s study, an actual ransomware attack occurred on the Colonial Pipeline. When one of Philip’s graduate students on the team, Miguel Moravec, came up with the idea of using a mobile app called Gas Buddy to look at gasoline usage at various gas stations as a proxy measure of the effects of the attack on the pipeline, the project made national news. “We tapped into that to understand the impact of the outage,” Philip said, learning that cities served by barge shipments of gasoline suffered far fewer shutdowns of gas stations than cities that primarily relied on the pipeline. “There’s plenty of available capacity on the waterways system, which we can’t say about rail or trucks,” Philip said. Among the resilience measures suggested for the three cities: repair or install terminals to accept barges again. 

Nowhere To Hide

During the Q&A period, the panelists were asked what incident or emergency most worries them. “Earthquakes,” said Heinold, noting that the New Madrid Fault is supposed to be due for a major quake. Allen said any shutdown of the river system disrupts commodity prices from the market’s point of view. Philip said flooding gave him the most concern as an operator. “Flooding closes the system. Low water we can cope with.”

He added, “When I started in this business, disruptions were episodic and localized. We could move assets to cope with them. But disruptions are become chronic and more widespread. There’s nowhere to hide from the effects of climate change.”

Later panels discussed decarbonization efforts by groups like the Blue Sky Maritime Coalition and the challenges of recruiting and training new generations of mariners equipped to operate  new technologies and respond to new threats, including cyberthreats.