Coal Shipments Down on WV Rivers

The State Journal
27 October 2016
By Jim Ross

As is true with rail, less coal is moving on West Virginia’s waterways.

Waterborne shipments of coal in West Virginia fell in the third quarter when compared with the third quarter of last year. 

The largest decreases were in the Northern Panhandle, where the New Cumberland Locks and Dam handled 18 percent less coal and the Pike Island Locks and Dam at Wheeling saw a 17 percent drop in tonnage.

The Racine Locks and Dam between Point Pleasant and Ravenswood remained in the top spot as far as coal tonnage, but its coal traffic was down 11 percent compared with last year. Last year Racine saw an increase over 2014, but this year’s third-quarter coal traffic was less than 2014’s.

The Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam south of Point Pleasant sees coal coming downbound out of the Kanawha River and from northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio. It also handles upbound traffic from the Big Sandy River and other coal-producing areas. Its coal traffic was down 11 percent compared with last year and 35 percent compared with 2014.

Most of the coal moved on the Ohio goes to power plants. Power plants are burning less coal as natural gas and renewables take a larger share of the electric generation market. Also, coal from Central Appalachia is more expensive and has been losing market share to the Illinois Basin.

The drop in demand for Central Appalachian coal can be seen on the Kanawha River, particularly at the Winfield Locks and Dam, where coal traffic was down by nearly 50 percent in the third quarter.

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The numbers are compiled from monthly tonnage reports issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Almost all of the major coal haulers on the Ohio — Ingram, Crounse, Campbell — are privately owned and do not report volume and revenue figures to the Securities and Exchange Commission the way railroads do. The same is true with Amherst Madison, the largest coal hauler on the Kanawha. And while Marathon Petroleum is one of the largest movers of petroleum products on the Ohio and the Kanawha, it does not release information about specific cargo movements.

Because the Big Sandy River does not have locks and dams in its navigable portion, numbers were not available for coal traffic or petroleum product movements there. The lower nine miles of the river is home to several truck-to-barge coal docks, chemical plants and a Marathon refinery.

Movements of petroleum and petroleum products were also down on the Ohio in the third quarter. The Belleville Locks and Dam between Ravenswood and Parkersburg saw a slight increase of a few thousand tons, but the other dams on the Ohio showed decreases, ranging from 1 percent at Racine to 18 percent at the Willow Island Locks and Dam.