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River shipping swells up to 62 percent in Western Pa.

| Monday, July 22, 2013, 11:10 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
A barge makes its way down the Ohio River on Monday, July 22, 2013.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
A barge makes its way down the Ohio River Monday July 22, 2013.

The steady increase in the number of barges cruising Western Pennsylvania rivers makes Peter Stephaich happy.

“It's good for everybody,” said Stephaich, chairman and CEO of Campbell Transportation Co. Inc., which operates 36 vessels with 500 barges on the Ohio River.

An improving economy and the opening of a new battery of coke ovens along the Monongahela River are spurring the sharp increase in river shipping, experts said on Monday.

The Port of Pittsburgh Commission, citing Army Corps of Engineers data, said companies moved 12.7 million tons of goods on the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers in May, up 62 percent from May 2012.

That represents the highest May total since 2008, before the recession. Each of the previous seven months was the highest for that month since at least 2008 as well.

Pennsylvania employers added more than 19,000 jobs in June, and the state's 7.5 percent unemployment rate remained unchanged from May. Americans are buying more cars and trucks, furniture and clothes but are cutting back almost everywhere else, data show.

The shipping increase is “not only a good sign for the economy, but I think it also helps us make a strong case as we try to get more funding for maintenance and rehabilitation of our aging locks and dams,” said Port of Pittsburgh Commission Executive Director Jim McCarville.

Many locks and dams in the Pittsburgh area began operating in the 1930s or earlier. Many are showing their age, with crumbling walls and malfunctioning gates. Congress is considering a bill to increase money for improvement projects in the area.

McCarville said shipping of mineral commodities and manufactured goods increased in May, reflecting what he described as a general improvement in economic conditions.

A scheduled two-week closure of Beaver County's Montgomery Locks and Dam in June helped inflate the numbers, McCarville said, as many companies that receive deliveries via the Ohio River ordered shipments earlier than usual to stockpile goods in advance of the closure.

The opening of U.S. Steel Corp.'s new C Battery in November is playing the biggest role in boosting local river traffic, said McCarville and Frank Gamrat, an economist with the Castle Shannon-based Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.

“There's no question,” Gamrat said.

One jumbo-sized barge can haul about 1,500 tons of coal — meaning C Battery requires enough coal annually to fill more than 900 barges.

The battery, which the company built for $500 million, replaced three higher-emissions units at the Clairton plant. It can produce about 960,000 tons of coke annually in a process that requires more than 1.3 million tons of coal, said company spokeswoman Courtney Boone. The coal is shipped to the plant by barge, while finished coke goes out on rail for use in U.S. Steel blast furnaces.

“U.S. Steel depends on the Monongahela/Ohio River system for transporting raw materials and finished steel to and from our Clairton Plant, Irvin Plant and Edgar Thomson Plant in the Mon Valley,” Boone said.

Boone said C Battery opened on Nov. 25, but the company ordered coal before then to stockpile it for the opening.

A spike in river shipping in the Pittsburgh area happened about the same time, according to Army Corps data.

Shipping soared 38.2 percent in October, 83.5 percent in November and 79.7 percent in December compared to those months in 2012, data show. In the year's previous nine months, shipping had been down about 5 percent over the same period a year earlier.

Shipping has been up between 34.5 percent and 62.3 percent year to year in the first five months of 2013, data show.

Stephaich said several companies have benefited.

“If we don't get funding and locks and dams continue to deteriorate, a company like U.S. Steel that's putting hundreds of millions of dollars into river development, it's going to make it hard for them to justify that investment. It's a huge issue for our region,” Stephaich said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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