Coal Age

FEB 2012

Coal Age Magazine - For more than 100 years, Coal Age has been the magazine that readers can trust for guidance and insight on this important industry.

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 37 of 59

inland waterways LOCKED Out: Aging Locks and Dams Jeopardize Inland Waterways BY LEE BUCHSBAUM, ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND PHOTOGRAPHER Transporting coal along the inland waterways makes sense, but the system has been pushed beyond its limits. Endless foreign wars, endless Federal budget cuts and endless politi- cal debates are starting to take a collective toll on the health and via- bility of our nation's crumbling infrastructure, once the envy of the world. While most taxpayers are familiar with the limitations of the nation's highway system, far fewer understand the problems now commonplace along the U.S. inland waterways system. Traversed daily by thousands of barges and tows owned by dozens of operators, industry and government stakeholders are becoming increasingly frustrated as the locks and dams that comprise much of the water- ways infrastructure continue to fail at accelerating rates. As funds dry up from the Federal level, it will be left to industry, labor and local governments to shore up the liquid arteries of commerce that bind this nation together. Unique among the network of rivers that make up the U.S. inland waterways, the Ohio River would be considered a major coal river. Hundreds of millions of tons of coal travel through the Ohio River's many locks and dams annually going from mine to power plant, and increasingly from mine to export facility. As domestic utilities reduce the collective coal burn, now more than 10% of the combined steam and thermal coal produced in the U.S. is heading overseas. With coal traffic patterns changing as a result of this market shift, larger amounts of river-borne coal are seeking new outlets, especially as existing rail-served coal ports become clogged with other traffic. Complicating transit is the fact that many locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi and particularly the Ohio River are ancient, some over a century old, and quite a few are way past their design life. As each day passes, the threat of a significant or catastrophic lock or dam failure becomes more imminent. While America has so far dodged that bullet, the right bolt breaking lose at the wrong time in the wrong place could wreak havoc on coal markets. The Federal Government continues to invest funds in various riv- er improvement projects. Tremendous amounts of money have been tied up for years in one of the biggest boondoggles in modern times: the Olmstead Lock and Dam on the lower Ohio. Initially budgeted at $775 million, projected costs have today climbed to more than $2.1 36 billion and there's no end in sight. Moreover, according to the way in which money has been allocated and prioritized, under existing law, dozens of other projects are being held up while Olmstead is "fin- ished." Meanwhile, the inland waterways become more fragile. According to the Waterways Council, a Washington-based indus- try group, moving coal and other freight via barge through the nation's river system is the most energy efficient mode of transporta- tion. On average, barges move a ton of cargo 576 miles per 1 gallon of fuel. A rail car, by contrast, will move the same ton of cargo 413 miles per gallon. Trucks are the worst, averaging only 155 miles travel per that 1 gallon of fuel. One of the largest river shippers, American Electric Power (AEP) is able to do better: squeezing an average of over 642 miles traveled per gallon of fuel used. But in our increasingly car- bon constrained and supposedly "greening" economy, America's inland waterways are actually becoming less efficient and reliable. As Congress debates how much to fund the waterways through this win- ter, shippers wonder how the inevitable spring floods will affect them and their customers later this year. The Ohio: America's Real Coal River In a presentation delivered at the Coal Handling & Storage confer- ence, which was held during November in St. Louis, Keith Darling, president of AEP's River Operations, discussed how fragile the Ohio River system's lock and dam infrastructure has become. Headquartered in Chesterfield, Mo., AEP's River Operations sub- sidiary is the second largest dry bulk barge company on the inland waterways transporting more than 71 million tons of commodities each year. Traversing almost all of the nation's river systems, AEP moves about 32 million tons of coal annually into AEP power plants as well as another 3 million tons of limestone and urea, which is used in emission control systems, also traveling by barge. Throughout the nation's heartland, the Ohio, Illinois, Green, Tennessee, and the Upper and Lower Mississippi rivers and other rivers carry millions of tons of cargo to hundreds of industrial facili- ties. While the Lower Mississippi does not have any locks and dams, February 2012 Is a catastrophic cascading systems failure about to occur along the Ohio River?

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of Coal Age - FEB 2012