Content of barges diversified in Western Pa. as coal taking up less space
Barges often outnumber people in the Beaver County river town of Georgetown.
More than 200 barges can easily tie up along a nearly three-mile landing on the Ohio River almost out of sight from the 174 people living above its banks.
Capt. Charles Montgomery pilots the Alice Jean, a 1,200 horsepower tow boat, alongside six barges docked at Campbell Transportation Co.'s facility. Coal and coke fill five. Soybeans fill the sixth.
Coal production nationwide has fallen nearly 10 percent during the past year because of softening demand and low prices. Yet coal and the coke used for steelmaking still dominate the Georgetown landing, where Campbell crews re-arrange barges into smaller or larger tows depending on if they are heading upriver toward Pittsburgh or down toward the Mississippi, said Terry Mick, port captain of harbor vessels.
“Coal's always been the big dog but that big dog is not as big as it once was,” said Bill Porter, director of sales for Ingram Barge Co., a Nashville company with an office in Whitehall.
In recent years, a variety of products and commodities have appeared on the rivers.
Fertilizers, grains, lime, salt and steel coils often fill covered barges, old coal barges outfitted with a retractable roof. Across the river, a fleet of tankers float full of lube oils, diesel and jet fuel, gasoline and petrochemicals. A load of sand, mined in Wisconsin to be used in hydraulic fracturing wells in Western Pennsylvania, left the landing last week, bound for McKees Rocks, 10 hours upriver on a nice day.
“We're diversified here,” Mick said, wearing a bright orange lifejacket and pointing to the covered barge filled with soybeans.
Coal, lignite and coke account for nearly three-fourths of the 32.7 million tons shipped by barge through the Port of Pittsburgh in 2013, according to data from the Army Corps of Engineers and the port.
But the amount of coal floating on the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers has declined. About 12 million tons passed through Emsworth this year, 2 million less than last year. In 2013, about 23.7 million tons of coal passed through the Port of Pittsburgh, a network of 200 river miles passing through 17 locks and dams along the three rivers. That's 2 million less than the year before and nearly 9 million less than a recent peak in 2005.
“We continue to turn rocks to figure out what we could load into a barge,” Porter said.
Barges hauled 1.8 million gallons of petroleum and related materials such as gasoline, kerosene, lube oil and greases, through the Port of Pittsburgh in 2013. More than 2 million tons of sand and gravel, 1.4 million tons of limestone and 1.3 million tons of manufactured iron and steel products moved along the rivers that year.
More than 20,000 tons of food and farm products was shipped through Emsworth in 2014 and again this year. None went through in 2013. The amount of manufactured goods barged through the lock there nearly doubled to 140,000 tons this year from 80,000 tons in 2014.
Porter said road salt will fill barges this time of year.
Campbell CEO Peter Stephaich said the drop in coal has been slight but noticeable. The shuttering in 2013 of FirstEnergy's Hatfield's Ferry power plant in Greene County took demand for about 5 million tons of coal a year off the river, Stephaich said. Others have closed downriver, pressured by tougher environmental rules and competition from natural gas.
Demand from remaining power plants in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio and coke facilities, such as U.S. Steel's plant in Clairton and Shenango on Neville Island, has remained steady. ArcelorMittal re-opened a coking facility in Monessen in 2014, providing a small boost to coal and coke traffic.
But Stephaich fears the decline will continue.
“There is absolutely a concern that's driven by the regulations and the cost of natural gas,” Stephaich said.
To prepare, Stephaich's company covered 50 of its 600 barges for hauling grains, sand and other commodities. Campbell also opened a facility in West Virginia to clean and service tank barges for liquids.
Stephaich and other operators continue to eye wastewater from shale gas drilling as a future barge commodity. The Coast Guard and state regulators are working on rules for the shipping of that water via barge.
Larry Darnell, the manager of vessel operations for Campbell, isn't worried about the future of barges. He steered a lot of coal and a little bit of everything else through Western Pennsylvania's three rivers in his 43 years as a captain, through previous tough markets. Darnell piloted tractors, automobiles, and even whiskey decades ago.
“Straight to the tailgaters,” Darnell joked about thirsty Steelers and Pirates fans outside the former Three Rivers Stadium along the Allegheny River. “If it fits in the tow, we'll take her down the river.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or email@example.com.