Pilots to reduce Mississippi draft 2 feet
Pilots who guide ships in and out of the Mississippi River say they will reduce the depth to which ships can be loaded because of silting from this spring’s floods and a lack of funds for dredging.
Capt. Michael R. Lorino Jr., president of the Associated Branch Pilots in Louisiana, whose members guide ships over the bar at Southwest pass, said the draft of ships entering the river would be reduced from 45 feet to 43 feet, effective 10 a.m. Thursday.
The action was being taken because the Army Corps of Engineers is unable to maintain the channel on the lower Mississippi to project dimensions — the depth and width to which the channel is supposed to be maintained — due to lack of funding, Lorino said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
'The lower Mississippi River “has been neglected during the record stage levels that have impacted much of the Mississippi River Basin,” said the Big River Coalition, a group of 70 companies and organizations, including shippers, ports, ship owners and other maritime interests, in a statement Monday.
Sean M. Duffy Sr., administrator for the coalition, said at places the channel is reduced to 150 feet to 200 feet wide, instead of 750 feet. The two-foot depth reduction to 43 feet is even more severe than it sounds, he said, because for years the river has been over-dredged to 47 feet so ships are often able to load to drafts deeper than 45 feet.
About 475 million tons of cargo are moved on the Lower Mississippi River each year. Duffy said the draft restrictions will be most acutely felt by tankers and dry bulk vessels. He said two-thirds of U.S. grain exports move down the river and is vital to other commodities, such as coal, petroleum products and steel.
He warned the situation could get worse, with silting limiting drafts to 35 to 40 feet, “and that’s probably not even the worst-case scenario.”
'The time to act is now,' Gary LaGrange, Port of New Orleans president and chief executive officer, said at a press conference. 'The failure of the federal government to respond immediately will have severe economic impact. We are calling on Congress to pass an emergency supplemental appropriation, which should include the $95 million needed to maintain and restore the river to its authorized channel dimensions.'
Several members of Congress from both parties also appeared at the press conference, and asked for emergency funding and a long-term solution to the maintenance dredging problem.
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., called for passage of H.R. 104, the Realize America's Maritime Promise (RAMP) Act, which would require funds collected for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be spent on dredging and maintaining coastal ports, harbors and waterways.
The fund has a $6 billion surplus, said Duffy, and if passed, RAMP would provide adequate funds to maintain the lower Mississippi and other waterways.
The Big River Coalition said flooding this year has resulted in about 60 million cubic yards of sediment needing to be removed from the shipping channel. It said that is enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans 13 times and nearly double the 36 million cubic yards that needs to be removed from the channel in a normal year.
Duffy said the Corps of Engineers' New Orleans District has inadequate funding to address this record amount of sediment. The Corps has “about $10 million left to fund dredging from Baton Rouge to the end of Southwest Pass this fiscal year and has been forced to manage dredging as if no additional funding will be received by Sept. 30, 2011. On average the New Orleans District needs $105 million annually to maintain the navigation channel. The best estimate of the funding shortfall based on the estimated cubic yards of sediment that needs to be removed is $95 million.
Duffy estimates “emergency funding would restore and maintain this critical artery of trade at pre-disaster levels and allow vessel traffic to flow unimpeded.”
'The reduction in the allowable draft will impact the general cargo and container carriers calling the Port of New Orleans,' said Terry White, senior vice president, Gulf and South Atlantic for Ports America, which operates a terminal in New Orleans. 'It is critical for the Corps to maintain and elevate the dredging focus at the mouth of the river. Funding the Corps is paramount if we are to effectively combat the silting challenge. The less water we have forces the ships to sail lighter which results in less cargo moving over the port and disrupting the efficient distribution of goods throughout the country.'
White noted grain exports from Baton Rouge 'also will be negatively impacted.'
There are five dredges working near Southwest Pass, but Duffy said one is to leave at the end of this week. It will be replaced later in the month, but by then another Corps dredge is scheduled to leave so there will still be only four.
Lorino said that when silting has been severe in the past there have been as many as eight dredges working at the same time. ' Chris Dupin