Industrial Growth: Lower Columbia Ship Traffic Poised to Explode

By Shari Phiel, May 24, 2014, Longview Daily News


Billions of dollars of investment in industrial projects will send at least 850 to 1,000 additional ships sailing up the lower Columbia River in the next four or five years, and the number could rise as high 1,500.


That would more than double the annual number of oceangoing ships calling on lower river ports today.


Conservation groups, boaters and others say the traffic will drive up chances for accidents on the river, where ships up to 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide must ply a narrow channel barely deep enough to contain them. It’s a big misconception, they say, that anyone is closely coordinating ship traffic on the Columbia.


“The U.S. Coast Guard has some authority over ship traffic on the Columbia, but they’re not coordinating it. And once the state agencies approve a project, their ability to solve problems is over. That’s why it’s so important to consider the impacts up front. Once the ships are moving, it’s too late,” said Brett VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group based in Hood River, Ore.


But Columbia River pilot Capt. Paul Amos, who has guided thousands of freighters up and down the river over a 41-year career, has no worries at all.


“We’re nowhere near capacity. And I can say that because in the past we’ve had much more traffic than we have now,” Amos said.


As many as 2,413 oceangoing ships plied the lower Columbia as recently as 1995. The number dropped to 1,341 last year. The recession and use of bigger ships — requiring fewer smaller ones — are major reasons for the decline. So there’s plenty of room for more ships, Amos said.


“I’m confident that whatever’s coming, we’ll be able to handle,” Amos said.


Coal, oil, methanol exports


Extra large vessels — known as “Panamax” ships because they’re the biggest that can be accommodated by the Panama Canal — will be sailing into the Columbia to service a host of new industrial projects on the drawing boards.


Two methanol plants proposed by a Chinese venture in Kalama and Port Westward would each load and dispatch up to two Panamax ships a week.


A proposed, 44-million ton coal terminal in West Longview would send two loaded freighters out each day. That’s about 725 ships a year. And an 8-millon ton coal terminal proposed for Port Westward would add another 125 vessels every year.


If it expands to its authorized capacity, Global Partners will ship 115 crude oil tankers a year out of Port Westward. Vancouver’s proposed crude oil terminal would send another 350 oil tankers into the river annually.


Haven Energy’s liquid propane and butane terminal at the Port of Longview would add one ship a month to the mix.


The project with the largest ships is a liquid natural gas terminal in Warrenton, Ore., near Astoria That project would bring 125 1,110-foot-long supertankers across the Columbia River bar each year.



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Columbia River pilots will soon be boarding more and larger ships carrying bulk cargo for export.


Training more river pilots


Guiding ships of these sizes is no easy task, especially when they need to pass each other. This is why oceangoing vessels must hire members of the Astoria-based Columbia River Pilots Association. Ships must notify the Coast Guard 96 hours in advance of their arrival. That notification triggers alerts to ports, tugboat operators and the bar and river pilots. The river pilots must know every turn and every bar in the river.


“There’s a science to it. You have to watch the tides, you have to know what the tide levels are at all the times and each location on the river will be different. You have to know what the bottom surveys are like, how much water you have,” Amos said


Right now, there are 45 state-licensed river pilots. With traffic expected to increase significantly in just four or five years, the pilots association has already begun the lengthy process of training pilots. Amos said river pilots typically come from tugboats or similar backgrounds. Whatever their experience, all new pilots go through a 2 1/2-year training program. That program is good only for the Columbia River because of the river’s unique nature.


“There are close to 100 course changes – one way – from the mouth of the river to Port of Portland. The ships respond to (currents caused by) the bank and the bottom, not just what you see,” Amos said.


Each pilot carries a laptop loaded with a proprietary tracking system to monitor ship traffic on the river. The pilots can see the position, speed, direction, cargo and other details in real time for tug and tow boats, commercial fishing vessels, survey boats and commercial vessels.


River pilots also meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at least once a month to review the agency’s monthly river surveys. They look for areas where sand and silt are building up and areas where maintenance dredging will be done. This is critical, because the the corps-maintained channel is barely deep enough to accommodate a fully loaded Panamax vessel.


“We’ll determine what areas need the most attention, what’s filled in the most. It’s ongoing and the bottom of the river changes throughout the year. We work with the Corps of Engineers to keep the channel as clear as possible,” Amos said.


A lack of coordination


Despite assurances, groups such as Columbia Riverkeeper aren’t convinced the river can safely handle another 1,300 to 1,500 ships each year.


The traffic will affect wildlife and recreational users, said VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper. He also worries about a lack of coordination between local, state and federal agencies when reviewing proposed projects, working on emergency and spill response plans and managing the river traffic.


“The system that’s set up is that someone applies for a permit for one project and they analyze that one project without looking at the other five that are up and down the river,” VandenHeuvel said.


Anyone who thinks someone is watching over all the river traffic, as an air-traffic controller would, is mistaken, he said. Increases in river traffic, he said, will raise the risk of accidents and spills, and no one is studying the cumulative impact all these projects will have on river safety and the need for updated emergency response plans, training and equipment.


“There is no overarching review of the impacts. We’re having multiple large projects that are getting piecemeal review,” he said. “If you’re trying to fish on the lower Columbia, and there’s 100 percent more ships coming through, that’s a problem. Those impacts should be analyzed, and they’re not.”


Ultimately, the Coast Guard is responsible for river safety. Although the Coast Guard doesn’t have permitting authority for the docks or structures used on them, it does work with each port to develop spill response plans. Guard Cmdr. Jon Hellberg said the agency works with each port to develop plans specific to what’s being transported.


“They’re required to exercise those plans. We come by and do spot checks We monitor transfers and more,” Hellberg said.


Each ship coming into the river is also checked.


“Any of the foreign vessels coming in are regulated under international treaty. We go on board and check for compliance with everything from safety equipment to pollution equipment, to proper training and manning,” he said. “We go through everything from habitation, the labor aspects, to making sure there are proper working conditions.”


Hellberg said the regulations for domestic shippings are even more stringent.


Port side


While the river pilots ensure the safe passage of vessels by controlling the flow of traffic in the river, each port independetnly handles traffic coming to and leaving its docks. Ports typically receive about 72 hours notice of a ship coming in, but unless a ship needs to move from port to port, there is no communication to coordinate the arrival and departure of ships.


How each port manages its traffic is also unique.


For example, at Port Westward, owned by the Port of St. Helens, crude oil handler Global Partners is the only tenant bringing in ships, so the company and its shipping agents manage all ship traffic. With the addition of proposed methanol and coal projects at Port Westward, that will have to change.


“We will be looking to hire a terminal manager sometime this year. One of that person’s responsibilities will be dock assignment and coordination,” said Port of St. Helens Director Patrick Trapp.


At Port of Kalama, managing incoming and outgoing traffic is handled by a dedicated staff member. Port tenants like Steelscape have preferential berthing arrangements. That means if a Steelscape ship is coming in, a ship already docked there would have to move along.


What are the chances of two ships competing for the same dock space?


“That just can’t happen,” said the Port of Longview’s Ashley Helenberg. “We have anchorages … where ships will anchor if that happens.”


However, pilots, shippers and engineers have recognized there is a shortage of mooring places in the Columbia, saying more are necessary to avoid delays and keep the river safe, especially as maritime commerce expands.


In the meantime, Trapp said its important to keep in mind that not only isn’t the river being used to its capacity, commercial traffic is the river”s intended use.


“The river is officially designated by the maritime administration of the federal government as a maritime highway – for commerce.”


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