River industry remains strong despite coal’s decline

March 24, 2019
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A barge transports coal on the Ohio River between Chesapeake and Huntington. River transport remains an inexpensive and safe way to move goods.

When it comes to the future of the water transportation industry, the outlook remains as steady as the flow of the Ohio River.

Industry insiders say job prospects remain in demand despite a steep decline in the coal economy and the phasing out of coal-fired power plants. The overall employment of water transportation workers is projected to grow by 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The job also remains as one of the quickest ways to launch a career with little experience and expected entry-level salaries between $37,000 and $42,000, said Sherri Sowards, program coordinator of the Maritime Academy at Mountwest Community and Technical College in Huntington.

The program provides training for various levels of the river industry — from entry-level deckhands to those with experience ready to become steersman. The academy also has classes for seasoned mariners wanting to expand their qualifications to become captains.

Those who take the seven-day deckhand class, the introduction to the water transportation industry, range from recently graduated high school students seeking their first jobs to displaced coal miners or truckers looking for a fresh start.

“It’s basically like, do they want a job or do they want a career?” Sowards said. “It’s the only job you’re going to have that much time off with pay and be still making good money.”

Workers at Taylor Iron and Metal in Huntington recycle scrap metal that is hauled on barges along the Ohio River. A representative said the river industry at large has seen a decline, especially in the amount that is being hauled.

However, the industry remains lucrative because it’s much cheaper to ship cargo on the river compared to train or trucking, the representative said.

A recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute showed one 15-barge tow can carry the equivalent load of 216 railroad cars and six locomotives. That’s the same as 1,050 tractor-trailers.

The same study also showed barges can move one ton of cargo 647 miles on a single gallon of fuel. For comparison, a rail car could move the same ton approximately 477 miles. A truck could move a ton approximately 145 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel.

Transportation on the river also remains one of the safest ways to move cargo. It’s safer for employees and for the environment, according to a 2017 study by the National Waterways Foundation.

The study looked at injuries and fatalities in the rail and trucking industries by compiling vehicular crashes and train derailments. To compare, the study looked at inland towing in terms of collisions, allisions (vessels striking a fixed object), groundings and capsizings/sinkings. When compiled together from 2001-2016, inland towing made up less than 1 percent of all recorded injuries and fatalities. Railroads made up approximately 20 percent of injuries and fatalities while truck freight contributed to approximately 79 percent. The study also looked a fuel emissions, which showed the river industry produces less harmful side effects to the environment with the most fuel-efficiency.

Sowards said greater strides have been made in the towing industry to recruit displaced workers. This is why a lot of workers in the rail and trucking industry are leaving to become deckhands, she said. The Maritime Academy has a 97 percent placement rate, which is much higher than some railroad programs and truck drivers licensing programs.

“We’re seeing that even though coal power plants aren’t burning as much, they are still shipping and doing a lot exporting with coal,” she said.

There are several different companies based in Huntington that ship cargo on the river, including Fuchs Lubricants Co., which ships several industrial lubricants and automotive greases on a mooring barge. There are also several fleeting areas, where barges are assembled to make a tow, including Port Huntington Terminals, Campbell Transportation and the Ohio River Company.

When it comes to recreation activities on the river, Huntington isn’t typically on the forefront of boating, water skiing, swimming, fishing or canoeing. However, it’s something the city wants to do more of, said Tyson Compton, president of the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau. Compton said his office receives calls frequently from people looking for river-related activities, but he doesn’t have a lot of places to point them.

Compton said he hopes to partner with the Appalachian Boarding Co., a standup paddleboarding company that plans to host activities and events on the river. The company recently celebrated a grand opening in Pullman Square in downtown.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.