The Associated Press
January 25, 2004
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - With money getting pumped into the war on terror and a public unconcerned about the health of the watery highways, Louisiana's key shipping routes are getting so bumpy and silted that some deep-draft ships are not able to make it into port, according to shippers.
Since December, two 36-foot deep-draft ships that made two monthly trips to a cement facility and bulk materials supplier in east New Orleans now are going to Texas because they could not make it up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.
The channel, which connects east New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, is filling in with silt and muck and there's no money to dredge it.
"The channels are going to hell," said Charming Hayden Jr., president of the Steamship Association of Louisiana. "We have not been maintaining our dredging at necessary levels now for years."
The shipping industry estimates that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to inject $23 million into dredging the state's three main shipping routes or face losing business - or worse, a ship running aground and spilling its contents.
But in this day and age of tight budgets, the Corps is on a diet.
"Overall, the budget for maintenance and dredging has been flat-lined," said
Marcia Demma, chief of programs management at the agency's New Orleans office. "It's been flat for several years."
The New Orleans district's $140 million budget for dredging and maintenance got even smaller this year thanks to a lousy 2002 hurricane season. The budget was $15 million in the hole after the agency spent last year paying for dredges to clean up after a tropical storm and hurricane, Demma said. "We still haven't got out of the hole from last year."
Now, the New Orleans branch of the Corps is pleading for extra funds from the regional office in Vicksburg, Miss.
Every month that passes without the money for dredging means the loss of the two deep-draft ships up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, each valued at $125,000 a trip, said George Duffy, the ships' agent.
"If we don't get the dredging, we won't have the ships get back there, and we have some major businesses there," Duffy said.
Worse, shippers said, is the possibility of the channels silting up more and forcing more ships to go elsewhere.
If the dredging work does not get done, Duffy said the shipping industry is thinking of suing the Corps to make it carry out its mandate: Make the waterways navigable.
Hayden blames increased spending on security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for putting even more pressure on the already tight budget. Security is a good thing, but the industry fears that the federal government is forgetting that there's infrastructure to invest in too, Hayden said.
"It makes no sense to guard a highway that is full of potholes and it's the same to guard these channels that are not efficient for the use of commerce," Hayden said. "It's bad for the economy."
Shippers are insisting that the state's three big port waterways need immediate work:
n $10 million on the Mississippi River, which takes ships to the ports of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
n $6 million on the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which serves the Port of Lake Charles, an industrial hub in west Louisiana, and several oil refineries.
n $5 million on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which moves cargo in and out of an expanding industrial zone in east New Orleans.
"The Corps has been doing a pretty decent job with it in the past, but the problem is they've run out of money and they're putting jobs off," Duffy said.
Edmond Russo, Corps operations manager for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, said the agency's offices elsewhere in the United States do not have enough money to properly maintain channels.
"While the nation has a lot of priorities, the upkeep of the nation's water infrastructure is very important, and I don't think a lot of folks see that," Russo said. "They're not as tangible, they're not in people's back yards, they're not interstate highways which everyone sees."