Tenn-Tom woes may earn disaster designation

Staff Writer

Businesses and industries along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway will ask Gov. Phil Bryant to include the waterway in the disaster declaration request to the federal government.

The request comes as the Corps of Engineers needs at least $10 million in additional supplemental funding to overcome problems caused by unprecedented flooding in late February that has caused shoaling and an actual blockage of through traffic on the Waterway north of Clay County.

The $10 million is in addition to the $3 million to $4 million the Corps normally gets each year for dredging.

“We can’t stress enough how serious the problems are and the economic impact,” said Mitch Mays, the executive director of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Water Development Authority.

“The $10 million is what it will take to bring the Tenn-Tom back to authorized width. And we need that to happen as soon as it can. That’s why the supplemental funding is so important,” Mays added. “The $10 million is on top of normal dredging work planned for every year.”

Problems continue to surface on several fronts.

A dredging company hired by the Corps to clear thousands of cubic yards of silt and debris blocking the channel on the south side of the Aberdeen lock now won’t arrive until April 1, about a week later than originally hoped, according to Justin Murphree, the Corps operation manager for the Tenn-Tom from Demopolis, Ala. north to the Tennessee line.

It’ll take at least three weeks to clear a one-lane channel once the dredge gets started.

Meanwhile, a new shoaling problem at the east bank of the Lowndes County Port in Columbus is limiting shipments to Southern Ionics’ dock there. With limited depth, barges can’t get in to load and unload. The company will either have to operate with only partially filled barges or find other options, said Port Director Will Sanders, who acknowledged Southern Ionics is one of the port’s largest customers.

The shoaling has not impacted a loading area just south of the Southern Ionics site where Steel Dynamics ships out finished steel coils. Steel Dynamics is able to ship southbound to Mobile, but it can’t ship north to a major customer in Arkansas, Mays said.

That problem may be further exacerbated by continued flooding on the Mississippi River which likely will block that as an alternative shipping route for the steel maker and others.

“We can still get from New Orleans to here but in the New Orleans harbor, they re limiting it to pushing two barges. That’s so limited it’s hard to even do anything. And with flooding in Nebraska headed south, that will make getting up the river impossible for awhile. There just aren’t many options, that’s what is so unusual, usually you have one or the other,” observed Perry Lucas, the manager at the Tom Soya Port in Clay County.

“These are all major logistical issues that have a financial impact on these companies and their customers,” Mays explained. “It really puts Southern Ionics in a bad situation, everyone in a bad spot.”

“We’ve lost some business because of this. Hopefully we’ll pick some up from people who now have to unload here and ship by rail or truck. But you don’t know any of those things for sure,” Sanders added.

Watco, the company that operates Lowndes County’s West Bank Port, which handles much of Steel Dynamics’ scrap and ore raw materials, is double impacted. It also operates the Amory Port and can’t get business southbound.

“Unless you deal with this every day, it’s easy to take all this for granted. But these are livelihoods we are talking about,” Mays stated.

The Corps surveyed the Lowndes East Bank Port, which is located on the old Tombigbee River channel, Wednesday and found at least 6,500 cubic yards of material needs to be removed to fully open the area to a 100-foot channel.

The large dredge that is coming from Florida to handle the Aberdeen job and related projects in that area can’t fit in the smaller channel to reach the Lowndes site. And the Corps’ floating plant dredge which currently is working in Tishomingo County can’t get south to Columbus because of the blockage at Aberdeen.

And even once it does, that small dredge can only remove about 500 yards a day, meaning it would take two weeks of constant work to correct the Lowndes problem.

Lucas is about to start dredging his own port to clear the way for when barges can get back in there.

“We’ve got silt all over the place. We can’t wait any longer. All we can do is crank ours up and do what we can. We’ll be pumping some out soon,” Lucas explained.

Meanwhile, the Corps still must survey the Demopolis Lake for additional shoaling problems.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation say they are aware of the situation but can’t say when funding might be available.

“The Tenn-Tom Development Authority has outlined its needs, and I fully understand the operation of the waterway is important to the region and any disruption affects the state’s economy,” U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said in a statement. “The House and Senate are talking about developing a supplemental appropriations package.  The size and nature of a supplemental bill hasn’t been determined, but I am ready to try to see that the Tenn-Tom is functional as soon as possible.”

“I am closely monitoring the situation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has and will continue to have my support as they work to bring relief to businesses and industries on the Tenn-Tom Waterway,” added U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly.

The emergency declaration could help light a fire in the process. The state already is filing a request for assistance to 45 counties. The Tenn-Tom would be a separate entity, but funding could be assigned quickly from existing disaster relief funds until more funding is made available later.