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Senator backs push to deepen Miss. river

Keywords: Tags  Mississippi River, Panama Canal, dredging, federal funding, David Vitter, Big River Coalition, Sean Duffy, Tim Ryan Corinna Petry

CHICAGO – Sen. David Vitter (R., La.) is backing calls to deepen the Mississippi river to 50 feet so that ports on the waterway can accept cargo from post-Panamax size vessels.

A project allowing larger ships to pass through the Panama Canal will be completed in 2015, and the U.S. shipping industry is scrambling to get federal dollars and private funding to widen or deepen harbors, ports and waterways.

Adequate facilities are required for, among other things, the large amount of commodities, including ferrous and nonferrous metals, imported and exported by the United States every year.

Nearly 94.8 million tons of iron, iron ore, steel waste and scrap moved across U.S. waterways in 2011, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Primary metal product shipments by water totaled 67.8 million tons, including steel, copper, aluminum, ferroalloys and manganese, while shipments of nonferrous ores and scrap totaled 26.9 million tons.

Vitter, the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, met with industry and Louisiana transportation officials Aug. 22 in New Orleans to draw attention to a new economic impact report detailing the benefits of dredging the Mississippi to a depth of 50 feet from its 45-foot draft.

The Big River Coalition and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development commissioned the study by economist Tim Ryan.

Ryan determined a deeper channel allowing for larger vessels to maximize cargo throughput would increase domestic production by close to $11.5 billion, generate nearly 17,000 new permanent jobs and boost the income of American workers by $849.5 million.

"The water resources bill that we passed through the Senate earlier this year will give us the opportunity to increase funding to dredge and improve our waterways and infrastructure," Vitter said in a statement.

The Lower Mississippi River channel was originally authorized to be deepened to 55 feet in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1986 but it was never dredged below 45 feet due to a federal requirement that annual maintenance beyond 45 feet be financed by the state. Language in the new WRDA bill would shift maintenance costs to the federal level.

"If the Mississippi River is not deepened to match the controlling draft of the new Panama Canal locks, U.S. exporters become less competitive in the world market and consumers pay more for goods and services," Big River Coalition executive director Sean M. Duffy Sr. said.

Post-Panamax vessels can carry 13,000 to 14,000 20-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers, up from the current Panamax vessels, which can only carry 4,400 TEUs.

The project to deepen the Lower Mississippi River will cost an estimated $300 million.

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