On the River
By T.L. Headley, American Coal Council
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The sun was just coming up over the mountains, and a gentle fog was beginning to rise out of the valley when I arrived at the Winfield Locks and Dam on the Kanawha River about 25 miles northwest of Charleston.
The Charleston – one of 30 towboats owned by Amherst Madison that work the Kanawha and Ohio rivers – was already in the lock and raised to the pool level for the trip upstream. It is one of thousands of such boats that ply the nation’s waterways each day.
I descended the ladder and stepped onto the deck. In front of me were six loaded coal barges, each holding about 1,500 tons of coal. Each barge was about half a football field long and 35 feet wide. This coal was on its way a short distance upriver to the John Amos power plant. Together, the six barges were pushing 9,000 tons of coal. Three to nine barge tows are common on the Kanawha River.
I was met on deck by a young deckhand, Ricky Boswell. Ricky is the newest member of the Charleston’s crew, hiring on five months ago. He led me onto the boat and to my cabin.
As I was putting my things away, I noticed a slight bump and heard the twin turbines pick up a bit. I looked out my cabin window to see the river gliding silently by. We were on our way upriver.
I finished stowing my things and then went to the crew lounge in the center of the boat. Ricky was waiting for me. He took me on a tour of the boat from stem to stern, with a stop in the well-stocked galley. He mentioned it was the captain’s turn to cook the evening meal and he was making a beef roast and potatoes tonight.
We made our way up a narrow stairway to the second floor of the boat, through the workout room and recreation area and up another narrow stairway to the bridge, where I met the captain of the Charleston, Tom Christener.
Captain Tom stood at the control console, deftly handling the twin throttles and the two rudder controls. His slightly graying red hair tied back in a long ponytail, Tom has been on the river for two decades. Before that he was in the Navy and the Merchant Marines. Altogether, Tom has served on boats for more than 40 years.
It’s a Family Thing
At Amherst Madison, crews work 20 days on the boat and then are off for 20 days. The crews are tightly knit and work together almost without a word from the captain. A crew generally is a combination of a core group that has been together for some time and deckhands who are new employees just starting out. Some take a class at a community college where they learn crew skills. Others come to the river after a stint in the Navy. For many, working the rivers is a family thing – with several generations on the boats.
At the risk of being trite, the river crews are a family. Spending 20 straight days at a time on a boat with five to 10 other people leaves almost no other choice. From the cooking to the upkeep of the crew quarters, from taking care of each other’s wounds to listening when someone has a problem, crewmates get to know each other intimately.
Amherst Madison is also a family thing. It was founded in 1893 in Charleston, West Virginia along the Kanawha River by Charles T. and George W. Jones. Today, the company has a second location in Henderson, West Virginia. The fourth generation family-owned company operates in the marine towing, construction and repair fields. In addition to 30 towboats of varying sizes, the company’s fleet includes 11 barge-mounted cranes and multiple 2,000-ton dry docks.
Truly impressive is that 99-year-old Charles Jones continues to work at the company’s Port Amherst facility every day.
“We’re Coal Too!”
From his perspective in the Charleston’s wheelhouse – and somewhere between reminiscing about a concert he had seen or his new hobby of beekeeping – Captain Tom said he couldn’t be happier than working for Amherst, but he’s worried about the future.
“We’re not seeing any upturn in coal yet,” Tom said. “In fact, our traffic is down, at least on the Kanawha.”
Tom attributed that to the number of coal-fired power plants that had been closed over the past eight years.
“Those were our customers,” he said, “but they are gone now.”
He pointed to the fact that during this run we would likely be going by two of the power plants that had been recently closed – the Kanawha River plant in Glasgow and the Philip Sporn plant in New Haven.
The Philip Sporn plant closing took away the market for about three million tons of coal each year. The closing of the Kanawha River plant left another one-million-ton annual hole in the market.
More broadly, over 450 coal-fired generation units have been shut down in recent years or are planned for closure, mainly due to EPA regulations. This has already taken tens of millions of tons of coal off the market.
Christener said that so far, he hadn’t felt the impact of the 15 percent increase in production the industry experienced in 2017, but he was hopeful that would change soon.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, is hopeful as well.
“Coal exports are up 60 percent this year over last,” Raney said. “And overall production is up 20 percent year over year in West Virginia and 15 percent nationwide.”
However, Raney said most of the export coal typically moves by rail to Baltimore or Hampton Roads and not down the rivers.
Chuck Minsker, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Huntington District, said the USACE data show a continuing downturn in river traffic.
The reported coal tonnage at the locks on the two rivers provides an indication of recent coal traffic. Below is a chart of coal tonnage, by quarter, at select locks on the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. “This data comes from information recorded at each lock in the Lock Performance Monitoring System (LPMS),” Minsker said. “Through the end of June, coal tonnage has been slightly higher than through the same period in 2016 on the Ohio River, while the Kanawha River locks (as shown on the lines for Winfield and Marmet) are showing slightly less. However, from quarter 1 to quarter 2 in 2017, coal tonnage has seen a drop for most locks on both rivers.”
That’s not unusual. The second quarter is generally considered one of the “shoulder seasons” for thermal coal providers – the periods of lower electricity demand each year when power plants may reduce deliveries.
As evidence for his hopefulness, Raney pointed to several possible actions Congress and the administration might move forward on to provide support to the coal industry, including the potential for prohibiting the closure of any more coal-fired power plants. There is significant focus on the reliability and resilience aspects of the electric grid, including by the Department of Energy.
Christener said that while he is happy the coal industry is enjoying an uptick, he hopeshe coal barge crews are not forgotten. “We are part of the coal industry too,” he said.
After catching a couple of hours of sleep, Ricky woke me to tell me we were back at my pickup point. The funny thing was, though I had only been on the boat a day, it was hard to leave these guys. I shook their hands and stepped off the boat onto the dock. Did I mention the roast beef and potatoes were excellent?