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Sunday, 16 March 2014 22:00

Ag-industry coalition wants to open Muskegon to river barges

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A group of agricultural and industry advocates wants to see the U.S. Coast Guard open the Port of Muskegon to conditional river barge traffic originating from the Mississippi River system. The Coast Guard is currently seeking public comment on the issue and could offer a rule change depending on the response. A group of agricultural and industry advocates wants to see the U.S. Coast Guard open the Port of Muskegon to conditional river barge traffic originating from the Mississippi River system. The Coast Guard is currently seeking public comment on the issue and could offer a rule change depending on the response. COURTESY PHOTO

A coalition of business and agriculture groups and West Michigan economic developers wants to make it easier to ship products into the region’s only deepwater port from the Mississippi River system.

They’re seeking approval from the U.S. Coast Guard to allow river barges from the Mississippi River system — which is connected to the Great Lakes via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal — to travel to Muskegon under the same restrictions they have to other Lake Michigan ports such as Milwaukee.

“It would be a game-changer for West Michigan and potentially all of Michigan as we look at the freight advantages from a cost standpoint of moving things by water as opposed to by truck or by rail,” said Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association (MABA) in a conference call with reporters.

Under the current system, the Coast Guard permits river barges to operate only on specific Lake Michigan routes without having to undergo costly inspections of the vessels. The river barges typically do not meet the requirements for unrestricted service on the Great Lakes, according to federal documents.

Previous rule revisions allowed the river barges to have conditional approval to travel certain routes on Lake Michigan under favorable weather conditions. The exemptions cover the western shore up to Milwaukee, and the group now wants to see those same exemptions extended to Muskegon.

Currently, much of the freight that comes in by water with West Michigan as its final destination first goes to the Chicago area, Byrum said. It’s then hauled to West Michigan either by truck or rail, he said, noting that’s an inefficient process for the agricultural industry.

His sentiments were echoed by Brian Brink, vice president of Brink Farms Inc. The Hamilton-based trucking company specializes in agricultural products and hauls a number of commodities that come off of the Mississippi River system, Brink said. Typically, the firm sends trucks to Illinois or the freight is loaded onto trains and then sent to Michigan.

“We have been looking into what we need to do to get the river barges into Michigan just because it makes logistical sense and increased efficiency for Michigan agriculture,” Brink said on the conference call.

The fledgling effort also falls in line with an initiative to better market the Port of Muskegon from a logistics standpoint, as MiBiz previously reported.

Currently, about 600,000 tons of the overall 1.4 million tons of freight coming into the port annually is coal bound for the Consumers Energy B.C. Cobb Generating Plant on Muskegon Lake. However, the plant is slated for closure in 2016, which poses a challenge for the Port of Muskegon. That’s because only ports with an active power plant that relies on Great Lakes vessels or ports with more than 1 million tons of annual freight get priority for federal funding for dredging and harbor maintenance, said Lynn Rose, public affairs director for the Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

When the Cobb plant closes, the Port of Muskegon must start looking at new options to ensure that it continues receiving federal funding for dredging and harbor maintenance.

“We are looking for ways to keep the port vibrant and commercially viable relative to other considerations that need to be included as we think about the future,” said Dennis Marvin, public affairs director at Consumers Energy. “Certainly, we know the importance of river barges coming into Lake Michigan and are very supportive of the concept.”

Initiatives to increase freight volume at the port have been a significant part of Rick Chapla’s efforts in recent months. The Right Place Inc. vice president of business development is continually working with business leaders to improve logistics systems and their awareness of the port.

“An expansion of waterborne transportation logistics offers choices for inbound and outbound freight if the mode of service is approved,” Chapla said. “As (Byrum) and I talk, the Port of Muskegon and its development inevitably rises to the top of the agenda.”

The overall marketing plan for the Port of Muskegon is a work in progress, with easier routes for river barges being just one part of the plan, sources told MiBiz.

There are no specific timelines or benchmarks in place for stakeholders to accomplish the revision of the regulations on river barges. The matter is in a public comment period, which Coast Guard officials said is open to anyone. After the comment period, the Coast Guard will evaluate the issue and potentially issue a rule change.

But no talk of expanded Great Lakes shipping takes place without a discussion of the threat posed by Asian Carp and other invasive species. The invasive Asian Carp are known for devastating marine ecosystems and have been found in the Mississippi River watershed, where the river barges would likely originate.

Currently, the Corps of Engineers has a number of ongoing studies to identify ways to combat invasive species from entering the lakes, including efforts to block them from passing through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Coast Guard officials, who will ultimately determine the fate of river barges into the Port of Muskegon, told MiBiz that they do not “engage directly with Asian carp control,” but rather support the other state and federal agencies that do.

MABA’s Byrum said that his group’s initiative is only to get barges that come off the Mississippi River to have greater access to Muskegon’s port, similar to the access the ships have to the sister port in Milwaukee.

“We are not opening any river any more than it is already open,” he said.

Read 2835 times Last modified on Sunday, 16 March 2014 23:20

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