The U.S. government needs to take action if it wants to keep plastics and other chemical products rollin' down its rivers.
In 2004, more than 11 billion pounds of chemical products - including plastics - were transported on 12,000 miles of inland waterways on the Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois and Arkansas rivers, as well as on canals on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Half of this volume was carried on a stretch between Brownsville, Texas, and St. Mark's, Fla.
But the system of rivers, locks and dams is receiving no new capital spending from the government, which could pose problems in maintaining some parts that were built in the 1930s, according to Kirby Corp. President Joe Pyne.
Houston-based Kirby is a major barge operator that posted sales of almost $800 million last year. Pyne spoke at the Chemical Market Associates Inc. World Petrochemical Conference, held March 22-23 in Houston.
Waterways are advantaged vs. other forms of transport by price, Pyne said. Waterways can be used for two-thirds the cost of rail transport and only one-tenth the cost of truck transport, he said. A single barge also can carry as much cargo as 58 semi-tractor trailer trucks.
Growing congestion on highways and rail lines has led to growth in water transport, which has been increasing at a rate of 7-8 percent in recent years. But age has caused the amount of unscheduled downtime to increase on the system. A large lock on the Ohio River experienced several weeks of unscheduled downtime just last year.
Less-frequent dredgings of waterways also reduce the amount of weight barges can carry, resulting in a need for more trips, Pyne said.
To get the message out, Kirby and other firms with a stake in the matter have formed the Waterways Council, an advocacy group trying to rally support for inland waterways infrastructure.
``The whole system needs government reinvestment,'' Pyne said. ``This situation could affect the ability of chemical plants to move feedstock and end products.
``If a critical lock fails between Houston and New Orleans, it could have a big impact.''