St. Mary port working on dredge technique

Summer Jade Duplantis
September 20, 2011
Alvin Harding Sr.
September 22, 2011
Summer Jade Duplantis
September 20, 2011
Alvin Harding Sr.
September 22, 2011

The Port of Morgan City is focused on two initiatives that would enhance economic development for the oil and gas service industries and other businesses while assisting in meeting mandated river depth standards at cut costs to the federal government.

The port’s district encompasses waterways that are used by 200 local and international businesses and serves as an entryway to international lanes or inland waterway travel to 30 states.

It is required, contingent on sufficient funding, to maintain a 400-foot wide and 20-foot deep channel from the convergence of bayous Black, Boeuf and Chene south to the Gulf of Mexico through the lower Atchafalaya River, per congressional legislation passed in 1968.

“You’re only as good as the shallowest portion of the river,” said Jerry Gauthier, president of the port’s board of commissioners. “You can have 20 feet the whole way and if you have one 15-foot spot, that’s your river. …We’re perpetually spending $10-20 million every year to keep dredging this. It’s an ongoing battle.”

The port hasn’t been able to comply with the mandate in full since it was issued, Gauthier said. Part of the problem is exemplified at the farthest end of Bay Channel, where silt is dredged and placed 5,000 feet west of the project area until it is recycled into the system, Cindy Cutrera, manager of economic development at the port, said.

“If you go back to it and check that area the sediment has been disposed in, it’s not shallow,” she said. “It has the same depth, which tells you the dredge material is circulating somewhere. It’s estimated that about 90 percent of that material is coming right back into the channel and having to be dredged over and over again.”

Gauthier said the port is researching the viability of alternative dredging by way of agitation, such as using high-pressure water to blast the riverbed, stirring up sediment and allowing it to be carried south with the current.

The shallower-than-required river depth weighs on nearby shipping companies, as they are forced to ship their larger vessels out of Houston, Lake Charles, Port Fourchon or as far east as Alabama.

InterMoor, an international company with a Morgan City base, provides anchor systems for offshore oilrigs. Although the river’s depth requires the company to ship its larger vessels out of Fourchon, the company decided to keep its Morgan City location after contemplating relocation in 2009 because the port helped them acquire a new, $20 million facility.

“They’ve been very helpful to us,” said Chuck Fontenot, quality control manager at InterMoor. “They were a key in helping us stay in Morgan City, and by staying in Morgan City, right at 200 people were able to keep their jobs.

“We spend a lot of money. Just in the Morgan City area, we spend several million dollars a year, and the money gets circulated.”

Halfway between Morgan City and the Gulf of Mexico, the Atchafalaya has changed its natural course over time to a more straight-lined approach to the Gulf, as opposed the older line, which resembles a horseshoe.

Although when nobody is monitoring, vessels will take the easier-to-navigate line, referred to as Crew Boat Cut, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still officially refers to the horseshoe as the river’s direction.

Cutrera said the silt continues to build up in the horseshoe because the current doesn’t carry it downstream. If the federal government were to acknowledge Crew Boat Cut as the correct travel line, it would save the corps $3 million in dredging costs per year, she added.

The corps has indicated it will accept Crew Boat Cut as the river’s official line, but the federal government will have to make available up-front money to harden the banks on the new line to protect private property from erosion in the future.

“Of course, it comes back to, ‘Well, who is going to pay for this couple of million of dollars for hardening the banks?’ so that’s where we stand right now,” Gauthier said. “But it’s going to happen and it’s going to save some money that we can use further downstream to keep the channel open as it gets to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Then there’s fluff, a mixture of saltwater, freshwater and certain types of silt that is present in a handful of waterways around the world. Fluff is a major nuisance to mariner travel, as it is known to clog filters and pin logs and debris against thrusters on multi-million dollar vessels and is destructive.

The port has invested $300,000 into studying fluff dispersal and has commissioned Moffatt and Nichol Engineers to investigate the matter further, Cutrera said.

“Once the fluff sits on the bottom for some period, it might be two months or four months, it does tend to get very hard, and you need a dredge to come in and move it,” Gauthier said. “If we can catch it when it is still in a viscous state, it should be very easy to stir it up and let the current continue to carry it offshore.”

The omnipresent priority for the board of commissioners is meeting the 20-foot deep mandate. Doing so would make the waterways easier to navigate and make the port more alluring to business, according to port officials.

“We’re painting a long bridge,” Gauthier said. “You start at one end with the fresh paint. By the time you get to the other end, it’s starting to rust at the initial end. It’s a vicious circle, so we’re really working hard to try to come up with something creative that will beat this problem for us.”