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Towboat pilots strike having minimal impact on river traffic

If the organized strike by towboat pilots is gaining steam you wouldn’t know it by talking to some of those who live and die by traffic on the Mississippi River and Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

Last Tuesday, the final statement before press time by Pilots Agree, the reportedly 1,200-member union that has organized the first strike in recent memory to hit the barge industry, said its then 10-day strike was having a profound impact on waterway transportation throughout the Mississippi basin.

But finding others to agree was difficult. Up and down the Mississippi — at ports, petroleum and grain terminals and along the Tenn-Tom Waterway — those contacted by the Mississippi Business Journal said they were watching developments closely but so far it was business as usual with the strike causing little or no impact to barge traffic.

“Right now it’s pretty much business as usual,” said David Work, port director of the Port of Rosedale in the northwest Mississippi county of Bolivar, who said traffic is traditionally slow at the port this time of year anyway.

At the Natchez/Adams County Port where the diversity of products being shipped there keeps business fairly steady year-round, the impact of the strike was apparently nil, said Port Director Pat Murphy. “We haven’t seen any impact whatsoever,” Murphy said. “We’re receiving barges in a timely fashion. If it’s being stopped, it’s not being stopped in our area.”

Donald Waldon, administrator for the Tenn-Tom Waterway Development Authority, said there were no reports of any barges being tied-up and left by striking pilots.

An estimated 3,000 towboat pilots work the Mississippi River and connection waterways like the Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri rivers. At the heart of the strike are demands for a doubling of the current $50,000 per year salary for pilots and vacation and overtime pay.

Pilots Agree president Dickey Mathes said picket lines at docks and terminals in New Orleans were swelling and workers from other unions were joining Pilots Agree as it stepped up its effort to try and convince towboat companies to come to the bargaining table.

“…we’ll have pickets at more than three dozen locations from Panama City, Fla., to St. Louis, Mo., in ports and harbors that are responsible for moving much of the nation’s fuel, fertilizer and grain,” Mathes said.

“Don’t wait until our efforts along the water show up at the grocery store, the gas pump or at your dining room table,” he said, concluding with one last plea for people to try and convince the towboat companies to negotiate “because you don’t want prices to soar.”

But are Mathes’ predictions and observations unfounded? To many in Mississippi they are.

“I don’t see any effect, as far as gasoline and diesel fuel,” said Walton Gresham in Greenville, whose family operates Gresham Petroleum, one of the area’s largest petroleum jobbers, and the Delta Terminal, which stores and distributes petroleum products brought in by barge along the Mississippi River.

Gresham said the Delta Terminal handles one to two barges a week that bring petroleum up from New Orleans or down from Memphis. Once in Greenville, product is taken by truck throughout the Delta area. Most other areas of the state are served by trucks that are supplied by pipelines into Memphis, Meridian or Collins and don’t rely on barge shipments. So, overall, Gresham said he doesn’t anticipate getting petroleum would be a problem even if the strike grew and lingered on.

“I don’t suspect we’d have any problem getting product,” he said.

But if the strike does linger on into late summer, the affect could be profound for at least one important industry: grain farmers, said Steve Nail, president and CEO of Farmers Grain Terminal in Greenville.

With eight locations throughout Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, Farmers Grain relies on barge transportation at five locations to haul products like corn, soybeans, wheat and rice.

Luckily for that industry, right now is the slow period since planting is just beginning and the number of barges required is just a fraction of what will be needed come September, Nail said.

Nail said currently at the Greenville terminal, only about six barges a month are loaded. During the peak months of August through October that will increase to 200.

“So far it hasn’t had a great affect on our operation,” he said. “But if it was to continue or expand it could affect our business.”

Nail said the reliance on barge transportation for the livelihood many industries, particularly grain, can’t be overstated. Without it, he said, the business would collapse.

Other transportation alternatives such as rail and truck simply aren’t’ feasible. For instance, the amount of grain carried by one barge would be equal to 60 to 80 tractor trailer loads, he said.

“Long-term we have to have barges moving up and down the Mississippi (River),” he said. “There’s not really a workable alternative.”

For the hauling of many products such as steel coil, fertilizers, chemicals, wood products and more, barge transportation is vital, said Rosedale’s Work.

“People just don’t realize how much tonnage moves on the inland waterway system,” he said.

Rosedale, built in the early 1980s and one of the younger ports on the Mississippi River, just completed a record year with more than 600,000 tons of goods passing through.

In Natchez at the Natchez/Adams County port, the first and last Mississippi port and in operation for 38 years, handled over 300,000 tons from almost 300 barges last year, Murphy said.

The Tenn-Tom Waterway with some five ports along its 234-mile span, hauled a record 9.2 million tons of products in 1997, Waldon said.

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