Kent News

PROGRESS: Muscatine company breathes new life into ‘Old Man River’

While barge traffic is down over the past 2 decades, GPC sees opportunity for future river traffic.

(Article courtesy of Muscatine Journal – by Charles Potter)

 

MUSCATINE, Iowa — Old Man River has played an important role in Muscatine’s history since the earliest days of the community. Logs were floated down the Mississippi River to Casey’s Woodpile, a village that predated Muscatine, to provide fuel for the steamboats that brought settlers and supplies to the region.

As the community grew, the river continued to be a major means of transportation. The development of railroads resulted in declining river travel, but the use of the river for shipping raw materials, farm products and manufactured goods increased. Steamboats gave way to diesel powered towboats pushing multi-barge tows, and the lock and dam system was developed to facilitate their journeys. Lock and dam 16, about a mile up river from Muscatine, was completed in 1937 at a cost of $3.6 million; it is one of 29 lock and dam operations along the upper Mississippi River.

 

Figures from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show that farm products are by far the most shipped commodity. But the figures also indicate the tonnage of shipped goods has generally decreased in recent years — from 31.64 million tons in 1992 to 18.08 million tons in 2011.

 

Those declining figures don’t reflect the practices and plans of one major Muscatine industry. Shipping via the river has always been important for the Kent Corporation and its subsidiary, Grain Processing Corporation, where officials are exploring ways to make greater use of the river and invite other industries to participate.

 

Osama Shihadeh, Kent Corporation’s logistics vice president said Kent ships products via the river from the time it opens to river traffic until it’s closed for the winter — usually from the end of March until mid November.

 

“We ship quite a few barges — animal feed mostly — south to the gulf,” Shihadeh said. “In addition, we used to bring our coal from down south up here until this year. We are switching from coal to natural gas.”

 

The switch to natural gas in GPC’s milling process, Shihadeh said, is because of environmental concerns and because the cost of natural gas has plummeted. But he added that GPC is using the river more to bring in raw materials.

 

“We shipped in a barge of corn a couple years ago, and it worked very well,” Shihadeh said. “We brought it by barge due to lack of rail service and the backlog they experienced. Sixteen hundred tons of corn can be brought by barge compared to 90 tons by rail car, so you can substitute around 10 to 12 rail cars per barge.”

 

Shihadeh said the comparison with trucking is even more pronounced.

“It takes over 100 trucks to load one barge,” he said

Officials at Kent believe they could take advantage of the river to make delivery more efficient.

 

“We are doing a study of how to take advantage of the river and how to use it more, probably utilize the river to take some trucks off the highway and the rail and see if we can start moving some of our export business to the ports in New Orleans and Houston,” Shihadeh added. “Right now, we use trucks to take it from Muscatine to a major rail yard in Chicago or Kansas City, then by rail to a rail yard to the east coast or west coast, then by truck to the actual port terminal. We’re trying to see if we can load containers on barges to take to ports in New Orleans or Houston for direct export.

 

“And our study isn’t just for our product. We would be willing to help other industries who would like to utilize that service.”

 

But just as highways and rail lines need periodic upkeep and updating, so does the lock and dam system.

 

“The maintenance needs of the aging infrastructure are increasing at a rate much greater than the operations and maintenance funding provided for the system which adversely affects reliability of the system,” states a document on the website for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Division

 

“The infrastructure is in place, but I think it’s crumbling,” Shihadeh added.

 

He said he is encouraged by a recent meeting held in Davenport by Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds on the topic of Mississippi River navigation.

 

“I attended that meeting, and it was very instructional,” Shihadeh said. “They want to make sure corporate engineers are involved in determining how to maintain the use of the river for trade and economics.