Coal's Power: Brownsville Marine Products is revitalizing a Mon Valley plant

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
29 December 2011
By Len Boselovic

Tim Scheib is in his element, barging through puddles separating the production buildings of Brownsville Marine Products and eagerly pointing out where $14 million is being invested to improve the efficiency of the Monongahela River plant.

A bracing breeze off the river cannot dampen the enthusiasm of Mr. Scheib, who holds degrees from the U.S. Naval Academy and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is president of the Brownsville barge maker. Once the project is completed in April, Brownsville Marine will be able to launch a 200-foot-by-35-foot, 340-ton barge every two days.

The bedrock of Western Pennsylvania could be seen as coal, a key natural resource that has long been an economic generator. The energy industry may be changing but coal still runs through many parts of life here.

With nearly 90 percent of the company's capacity booked through 2014, Mr. Scheib said his biggest concern is being able to find the workers needed to supplement the 307 employees working three shifts a day, five days a week.

"We are probably looking to hire 50 or more workers over the next six months," Mr. Scheib said. "We plan on being here and building barges here for a long time."

Pay for production jobs starts at $9.50 an hour and goes as high as $18 per hour, he said.

Demand for the barges comes from companies that move coal, grain and other commodities along the nation's rivers. The vessels are important to electric utilities, which depend on them to deliver coal to their plants along the region's rivers. Coal-fired power plants generate nearly 60 percent of the electricity in the Ohio River basin, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Export markets also generate demand. Baltimore and Virginia ports that handle coal exports are at capacity, prompting some producers to put their coal on barges to New Orleans, where it can be loaded on ocean-going vessels, said Michael Hennessey, Brownsville Marine's vice president of sales. Constraints at the traditional coal ports and an expansion of the Panama Canal that will make it cheaper to move export-bound commodities should support demand for coal carrying barges.

"I don't see that going away," Mr. Hennessey said.

Barges have been built on the 33-acre site since the 1940s, first by Hillman Barge, then by a succession of owners who ran into problems. They included Wilhelm & Kruse, which provided steel for PNC Park before going bankrupt.

The plant's latest operators, Heartland Barge Management, took over in 2005 and started production the following year. The Columbia, Ill., company has a fleet of 175 barges it leases to others and operates barges owned by others.

It purchased the Brownsville plant to have an alternative to the two barge builders that dominate the industry: Jeffboat, which is a unit of Jeffersonville, Ind.-based American Commercial Lines; and Trinity Marine Products, a division of Trinity Industries of Dallas.

Brownsville Marine will build 143 barges this year, Mr. Scheib said. He expects the number to increase to 165 next year and 180 by 2013. The expansion underway will reduce the time it takes to produce a barge on the company's indoor manufacturing facilities from six shifts to five, he said.

An outdoor line that produces two barges monthly will produce three per month, he said.

Mr. Scheib declined to disclose the privately owned company's revenue.

The modernization will automate more processes and reorganize the production line to eliminate some of the materials handling processes that add time and costs, he said. The project was made possible by multi-year agreements to supply barges to Cargill and other customers.

"It allows us to expand this place because we know the revenue is going to be there," Mr. Scheib said.

The Pittsburgh native and Quaker Valley High School graduate joined the company in June 2009 after a 27-year career in the Navy. His last two positions were serving as deputy supervisor of shipbuilding at the Navy's Newport News operation and commander of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Mr. Scheib, 60, said that other than the order of magnitude, there's no difference between building ocean-going vessels for the Navy and river vessels for Brownsville Marine.

"We're building to plan, building to cost, and building to design, which is no different than building a submarine or aircraft carrier," he said.

The bedrock of Western Pennsylvania could be seen as coal, a key natural resource that has long been an economic generator. The energy industry may be changing but coal still runs through many parts of life here.

Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.