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Coal losing foothold over Pittsburgh region’s river traffic

Pittsburgh’s rivers help tell the story of coal’s waning fortunes.

Ten years ago, about 28 million tons of the fossil fuel moved on the region’s three rivers, fueling power plants as well as coke plants where the natural resource was converted into fuel for steel industry blast furnaces. Coal from Pennsylvania and Ohio mines was headed to power plants in the mid-Atlantic, southeast and midwest. Coal from West Virginia and Kentucky mines fed U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke plant.

A decade later, just under 22 million tons of coal moved on the rivers in 2014, making floating barges loaded with the black mineral a less common sight in the region, according to preliminary figures from the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.

Despite the 22 percent drop, coal remains the major commodity shipped on barges that ply the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio. It accounted for 70 percent of the 31.5 million tons of commodities shipped on the rivers in 2014, according to the port commission, which has not yet completed a final tally of 2014 river traffic.

Overall river tonnage fell 21 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to the commission. The decline illustrates the ebb and flow of the regional and national economies; the pressure that coal is under from cheap, abundant natural gas, as well as environmental regulations; and the impact of the Great Recession in 2008-09.

Coal tonnage averaged 30 million tons in the five years before the economy bottomed in 2009, when only 25.1 million tons of the commodity were shipped on the region’s rivers. Coal traffic slowly trended higher from there, reaching 25.5 million tons in 2012. The next year, when FirstEnergy closed two coal-fired generating plants — Hatfield’s Ferry in Greene County and Mitchell in Washington County — coal traffic fell to 23.7 million tons.

Coal isn’t the only product carried by the rivers.

Other commodities that move by barge through the region include gasoline and kerosene, fertilizers, ammonia and other chemicals, limestone, sand and gravel, iron ore and scrap.

Related: Content of barges diversified in Western Pa. as coal taking up less space.

Marcel Minutolo, a management professor at Robert Morris University, said river traffic for many of those commodities also peaked in the years leading up to the recession. Since then, businesses have learned how to produce more with less, one reason why river traffic may have fallen off, he said.

A commodity that has seen demand pick up is limestone, which is used in road construction, manufacturing and other industries. About 1.8 million tons moved on the rivers last year, according to the port’s preliminary figures. That’s up from 1.4 million tons in 2013.

“The limestone trade is as good as ever,” said John Fedkoe, owner of TowLine River Service.

The Neville Island barge operator moves limestone out of West Virginia for Greer Industries. The commodity becomes cement and asphalt on Western Pennsylvania roads, Mr. Fedkoe said.

Several plans in the making could provide significant new sources of business to barge operators, if they are implemented.

FirstEnergy received a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection to barge coal ash — what’s left of coal after it has been burned — from its Bruce Mansfield plant on the Ohio River to a landfill at the shuttered Hatfield’s plant.

The Akron-based utility is under a federal consent order to move Bruce Mansfield’s coal ash from an unlined impoundment area nearby because it is leaking into the soil and contaminating groundwater and surface water. About 3 million tons of the ash would move annually, said Peter Stephaich, chairman and CEO of Campbell Transportation, a Houston, Pa., barge operator.

In October, the Sierra Club appealed the DEP’s decision, stalling any move to go ahead with that project.

Thus far, barge operators have not benefited much from the region’s natural gas boom.

A 2013 report commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said activity in the Marcellus and Utica shale fields had not generated increased river traffic, but it held out hope that there could be significant opportunities in the future.

One big opportunity would be shipping the wastewater used to hydraulically fracture natural gas wells from well sites to plants where it would be treated. In the Pittsburgh region, each barge would carry about 10,000 42-gallon barrels.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates river traffic, put a proposal for shipping the wastewater by barge out for public comment in 2013. It was supported by industry groups but opposed by environmentalists.

Industry groups said the wastewater would be less hazardous than a lot of other commodities that already are permitted to move on the river, including gasoline, fuel oil, fertilizers and other chemicals. Environmental groups said the waste would threaten communities that get their drinking water from the region’s rivers.

Two years later, the Coast Guard has yet to issue final regulations. Coast Guard spokeswomen Lisa Novak said the policy is still under review. She could not provide a timetable for a decision or say why it has taken so long to reach one.

Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to build a multibillion-dollar cracker plant on the Ohio in Beaver County could also boost commercial shipments on the rivers. The plant would chemically “crack” ethane and produce polyethylene pellets for use in the plastics industry. It would be the first of its kind in this area of the country.

“I think there’s potential for a lot of activity, both moving material in and moving material out,” said Mr. Minutolo, who was part of a Robert Morris team that did an economic impact study of the cracker plant for Shell.

Mr. Stephaich said Shell is considering moving equipment and other supplies that would be used to build the plant up the river. Once the plant is up and running, other businesses that would use materials there would open nearby, offering barge operators the potential for more new business, he said.

Shell has not made a final decision about building the plant. But the company has agreed to pay for most of the $72 million cost of a new water treatment plant for the Center Township Water Authority and plans to spend about $80 million over the next two years cleaning up environmental contamination at the proposed site, formerly occupied by a Horsehead Holding zinc smelting plant.

(c)2015 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This article was written by LEN BOSELOVIC from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.