Companies hit hard as cargo waits for river to re-open

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 23, 2016

North and southbound tows and the boats pushing them are sitting snug against the east and west banks of the Mississippi River as their captains and crews wait for a U.S. Coast Guard notice announcing the river between Vicksburg and Natchez is reopen to traffic.

And the delay is expected to hit the operators hard financially.

The Coast Guard closed the river between the two bridges indefinitely late Thursday after southbound tows struck both the old U.S. 80 bridge south to the Natchez-Vidalia U.S. 84 bridge Thursday afternoon.

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Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Brian Porter said the Coast Guard has established an incident command post in Natchez in the wake the motor vessel Amy Francis striking the Natchez-Vidalia bridge, damaging at least one barge carrying slurry oil and causing it to leak about 76,000 gallons of clarified oil mixture into the river. He said a cleanup team is at the site.

But while the Coast Guard continues its investigations into the incidents and cleaning the oil from the river, boats and tows continue to line the riverbanks as the captains, crews and owners wait.

“If you come look at the river and the tows that are holding up north of the bridge now, it looks like New York Harbor,” said Austin Golding, Golding Barge marketing, sales and customer service manager. “You shut this thing down for a few days, and there will be tows bottled north and south of Vicksburg 50 miles. Not good.”

“By shutting the bridges down, we find ourselves just waiting on one side or the other. We have goods that need to get to market, but obviously, everyone wants to be as safe as possible,” said Patrick Smith, president of Yazoo River Towing.

And the meter to keep the boats running on idle is ticking.

“Your costs will depend on the size boat and the amount of cargo, and the barges you have in front of you,” Smith said. “The bigger boats, just the boat itself, can cost upwards to $6,000 to $10,000 a day, but that doesn’t include the cost of the cargo in the barges. And the fuel for the boat a different cost.”

“If you add up all the cost of all the operational costs and the cargo on those barges, it’s in the multi-millions,” Golding said. “Each tow, depending on the cargo they carry and the types of barges they push get paid differently, but it’s hard to say anything across the board but the cumulative effect of the cargo that’s not reaching where it needs to go, and what it’s costing these companies to run these boats. It’s in the millions just in this closure itself. Keeping the crew paid, fed and the boat operational.”

From Golding Barge’s standpoint, Golding said, it’s curious the Coast Guard has limited north and southbound traffic, “and we haven’t had any incident with the industry northbound.

“So to shut northbound traffic down it seems a little over-reactionary and (for) the southbounders, it’s just a carte blanche shutdown,” he said. “They’re not making exceptions for tows that are our size. Instead of having the tonnage that these boats with 30-40 barges do, we’re pushing two or three with a fraction of the tonnage they are and a fraction of the footprint, but we can’t try and make it either.”

He said problems like the river shutdown, high water and flooding are things the towing inustry prepares for.

“But I think we should have our say,” he said.

Smith said the Coast Guard has done a good job of allowing the towing industry “to try and police ourselves with river committees, and we feel like we’ve done an excellent job of doing that with the Coast Guard. But the river stage and the flows are just as such the Coast Guard obviously feels we need to backup and take a second look at things, due to the collisions that have occurred so far.”

And Golding’s captains, Golding said, say there’s something different about this high water situation.

“I’m disappointed in the number of strikes on the bridge here and in Natchez and other places, but in talking to our captains, especially our most experienced guys, this is not the fastest river north and south they’ve seen, but there’s something about this rise that makes the sets (steering) left to right more unpredictable and more aggressive than they’ve seen in, some say, ever,” he said.

“This rise happened around such an acute weather system, where so many tributaries were so full and this river got injected with water from so many different directions, not just the typical Ohio, Missouri snow melt,” he said. “I think this rise has a different water element that somebody smarter than me could explain, but there’s something going on.”

“We’re hoping we can all come to a resolution that will allow the bridges to be open safely to transit,” Smith said. “We all want the same thing. We all want to transit the river and the bridges efficiently and safely, and the Coast Guard wants the same thing for us.

“The Coast Guard isn’t doing anything to try to hurt or undermine our efforts. They’re tasked with making everything as safe as possible, and until they deem that it is safe, they’re going to hold us up.”



About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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