Waterway woes: One company alone losing $6 million

The sandbar stretches across the Waterway like an inviting beach, albeit one that is costing businesses millions of dollars in lost revenues.
Staff Writer

The closure of the through-traffic north and south of Aberdeen on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is costing Tronox in Hamilton an estimated $6 million in lost revenues and $630,000 in additional logistics and trucking costs.

And that’s just one of dozens of examples up and down the Waterway, the head of Mississippi Emergency Management Agency was told Friday.

The state is including the Waterway in its request for a federal emergency declaration stemming from unprecedented flooding from Feb. 22 into early March. In fact, some areas still are experiencing high waters that are slowing surveys of the river from Mobile to Kentucky to fully understand the extent of the work that needs to be done, the Corps of Engineers, which manages to Waterway, and the Tenn-Tom Development Authority told MEMA Director Greg Michel during an update and tour of the worst areas.

And while steps have begun to clear the main blockage at Aberdeen, where silt has lowered the water level to knee deep in places and blocked it completely in others, little hiccups keep slowing the process. That’s all while local and state officials push for at least $8 million in supplemental funding to pay for the months-long process of getting the Waterway back to “normal.”

“It may be different numbers, but it’s the same situation for businesses up and down the waterway,” TTW Development Executive Director Mitch Mays told Michel, citing the numbers in a letter Tronox sent Gov. Phil Bryant urging action.

“They even talked about a temporary shutdown. That would have meant untold losses in revenues, taxes, payrolls,” Mays noted.

Because barges can’t get through at Aberdeen, Tronox is having to truck much of its raw materials in and products out. The chemical company is a major customer for the Amory Port.

Likewise, limestone gravel that comes to Columbus from Kentucky to supply construction projects as far west as Webster County is having to be trucked in to the East Bank Port in Lowndes County rather than being shipped in large quantities by barge.
Twenty-five barges that were scheduled to come through the Lowndes Port in March were lost.

The ports and Corps itself also are losing money because much of their funding is either based on tonnage or fees paid based on tonnage. For instance, as much 450,000-tons a month go through Aberdeen.

"That obviously hasn't been happening," Murphree noted.

The Corps has hired Mike Hooks Dredging, which has the largest, most-powerful dredge of its kind in the region, to come dredge out the Aberdeen clog and another smaller one about five miles south where the draft limit is seven feet at mile marker 352 on the river.

That dredge has been slowed leaving the Gulf Coast on a couple of occasions, including late last week when the boat pushing the dredge up river wasn’t strong enough. The company had to find a more powerful tug to get it to Aberdeen. That arrival is still hoped for April 1.

It’ll take at least three weeks to dredge out a temporary channel. The dredge then will go downstream to the shallow area there and come back to the Aberdeen lock to finish that channel.

But the Corps has identified “seven or eight” other areas that need significant work.

Aberdeen is going to cost $5 million and another $2 million will be needed for other areas. The Corps also needs $1 million to clean up and repair recreation areas on top of about $700,000 it already has spent, Corps Operations Manager Justin Murphree told the group Friday.

He showed pictures of the fishing docks washed away at Dwayne Hayes Park in Columbus, a water park and picnic area buried in silt and similar examples up and down the river. And damage to private properties is not incl;used in any of his estimates.
“We’ve got seawalls washed out, docks gone, I don’t even know of it all,” Murphree said.

As one example, property owners in Point Harbor paid $80,000 last year to have a canal dredged out to improve water access to their properties on the eastern edge of Clay County, Much of that channel is silted in now, stranding boats.

“We’re throwing everything we have into dredging right now. That is the priority,” Murphree said, explaining the Corps has cancelled other projects, such as more than $400,000 set aside to replace a damaged gate at the Stennis Lock in Columbus, and reallocated that money.

Ironically, the Columbus damage was caused by two runaway barges during flooding in late December 2015.

So even if the Corps does get $8 million in supplemental funding, it still will need the $3 to $4 million it gets each year normally for dredging. It also will need to replace the funds it has reallocated.

"We plan to get another large dredge up here once Aberdeen is done, we can keep two busy for several months," Murphree explained, noting the normal channel is 300 feet wide.

Currently several spots, especially north in the Pickwisk area, another area near Amory and some other places, are between 100 and 150 feet. Those must be dredged back to normal width and depth.

“This is outside the norm for all of us. This is historical and unprecedented. We are willing to throw whatever resources we can at it. And we will do everything in the world we can to expedite,” Michel told the group, which included representatives from Southern Ionics, Watco, which manages ports in Lowndes County and Amory, and others.

The Corps and local port operators are working on a partial, temporary solution to help improve traffic at the Southern Ionics docks at the Lowndes East Bank Port. To try to meet its immediate needs and stay ahead of its inventory, the company is bringing a partially loaded barge to Columbus with materials and then can truck those to destinations.

At the same time, the Lowndes Port may try to use a small dredge operation to clean out about 6,500 cubic yards of material from the channel to the Southern Ionics dock to allow more draft.

The Corps also is surveying the Waterway from Tuscaloosa to Mobile and may be able to divert a dredge from Tuscaloosa to Columbus if many problems aren’t found down river.

Ironically, the problems were caused by the most severe flooding seen since 1991 but now, some high waters would actually help some situations by allowing dredge barges to get through Aberdeen.

“I’ve never seen silt like this,” Sam White, of Southern Ionics, said, asking what has changed.

Murphree described what amounts to a perfect storm of circumstances.

Many of the tributaries such as Town Creek, Little Brown Creek, Big Brown Creek and others in the Tupelo area and north of Fulton have been filling up with silt and debris for years. The same goes for the Old Tombigbee River channel. This year, with record rainfall since last November, the flooding finally “washed it all out.”

When asked whether it could be prevented from happening again, Murphree said, “I really don’t think it would be feasible,” because of all the variables at play.

Other issues do have those who depend on the Waterway concerned. April often is a month for flooding. More high waters in the next six weeks could not only delay dredging but also push silt that is stacked up at areas like Aberdeen back into channels.

Furthermore, the federal government and Congress appear to be waiting to see how flooding in Nebraska and the Midwest from winter melting is going to impact the Mississippi River during the next three weeks. That could delay supplemental funding which in turn could push back other work.

“We’re just doing what we can to make things work every day. We’re used to this. If it’s not something here, it’s something somewhere else,” noted White, referring to the operations Southern Ionics has from Mississippi to Texas.