VICKSBURG — Last year, 360 barges, 1,200 rail cars and 11,000 trucks passed through the Port of Vicksburg, contributing to a total of 3.6 million tons of products handled at the Vicksburg Harbor. The record amount of tonnage was partly boosted by — of all things — low water as a result of drought conditions.
“Last year, we handled 300,000 tons, our biggest year ever,” said Anita Clary, terminal manager for River Transportation Co. (RTC) for the Port of Vicksburg, who has worked at the port since 1979. “When some of the businesses on the river that handle their own cargo couldn’t do so because of the water level, we filled in for them.”
The RTC operates the public port for the Warren County Port Commission.
The only fluctuation of tonnage has been because of changing business demands, not water levels, said Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Warren County Port Commission and the Vicksburg-Warren County Economic Development Foundation.
“Business has stayed pretty steady but does fluctuate as industry demands change,” he said. “We may go down in grain, but we’ll go up in fertilizer. The paper industry has been a little soft, but it’s starting to make a comeback. We’ve seen a slight decline because some jobs have moved offshore because of NAFTA. And Bunge, who was shipping a lot of grain, closed operations here because of increasing production overseas. We’ve given a lot of our technology to other countries for growing grain so now there’s less need to ship.”
The products that move through the lower Mississippi River’s fourth busiest port — only behind New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Memphis — include steel, paper, grain, crude petroleum, lime, fertilizer, wood products, cement, sand, gravel, manufactured goods and products.
“The diversity of products has kept the tonnage up,” Clary said.
The most common products handled through RTC are International Paper’s products, valued at up to $600 per net ton, and steel coils, worth up to $1 per pound and bound for Byram’s Industrial Park, said Clary.
“In 1998, Mississippi’s 16 ports pumped $1.5 billion a year into the state’s economy and that doesn’t include Ingalls,” said Wayne Parrish of Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) Ports and Waterways Division. “The Port of Vicksburg is the busiest of the state’s ports on the Mississippi River.”
The Port of Vicksburg, which has its own U.S. Customs Port of Entry, began shipping operations in October 1968. Owned by the Warren County Port Commission, the port has been a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) since April 1989. In the FTZ, which was expanded to include Jackson, products remain duty free until taken outside the zone.
“If you bring in raw materials for assembly of an automobile, for example, the engine might be 8%, but the automobile is 2-1/2% when it goes out of the U.S.,” Heidel explained. “With Nissan and other suppliers coming in, the Foreign Trade Zone will be very important to them.”
One of the port’s most marketable features is the LASH program, which enables a barge to be sealed for international travel in Vicksburg and transferred directly to New Orleans where the barge is then loaded, with products still sealed. Most LASH vessels through Vicksburg’s port are International Paper products, Clary said.
“After the export barges go on a LASH vessel in New Orleans, the vessel goes to Rotterdam where the barges are taken off,” said Clary. “They go across to England and up the waterways through Europe. LASH vessels loaded and sealed in Vicksburg aren’t opened again until they reach their destinations in Europe. It’s a pretty nice system.”
The port’s facilities, which include two docks, one with a 15-ton covered overhead craneway, with the adjacent T-dock having a 125-ton crane and 129,000 square feet space of warehouse space, are about to be upgraded, Heidel said.
“We just got notification from rural development that they’re going to fund an almost $900,000 grant to overhaul the loading and unloading facilities at the port,” said Heidel. “That’s going to be a little over $1 million when we add to it. The money will be used to put in heavier cranes for loading and unloading that will allow us to handle more volume.”
The Warren County Port Commission is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and congressional delegates to obtain funding for a feasibility study to add 80 acres at the port because, “we’re virtually out of land,” Heidel said.
“The future of river transportation — and the volumes of products coming over the Mississippi River and going into the port of Vicksburg — is great,” said Heidel. “As Nissan gets cranked up, we’ll be impacted a great deal by increased shipments of steel. We should see a good outpouring of fertilizer shipments from Mississippi Chemical and Vicksburg Chemical. There has been continuing interest in the growth of our refineries, like the old Barrett refinery that was here. We have some people looking at it to possibly bring in crude from South America for diesel fuel.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.