River Commerce Depends on Aging Coast Guard Cutters for Navigation

The Coast Guard Cutter Cheyenne, Feb. 15, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Ayla Kelley)
The Coast Guard Cutter Cheyenne, Feb. 15, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Ayla Kelley)

Five Coast Guard cutters are charged with marking navigation channels on major rivers from roughly the St. Louis area north to the Twin Cities of Minnesota, and between Omaha, Neb., and near Chicago.

In recent weeks, just one boat -- the Sangamon, a river buoy tender ported in Peoria, Ill. -- has been on the water in that area as the others await repairs.

The boats all have more than 50 years of service, which means they break down and require more maintenance. Lead and asbestos are problems, as is equipment so dated that some replacement parts aren't sold anymore.

The condition of cutters assigned to inland rivers hasn't gotten as much attention as the aging Coast Guard boats used to catch drug dealers along the nation's ocean coasts. But many in the river industry say the work done by the Coast Guard on rivers is vital to moving cargo.

"We rely on those aids to navigation to guide us through ever-changing river systems," said Aimee Andres, executive director of the Inland Rivers, Ports and Terminals Association based in East Alton.

The cutters mark channels guaranteeing river traffic a space that's at least 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide, and build and maintain shore aids, a system of towers and lights along the rivers.

"When I explain it to my neighbors, I say that we put out the buoys that guide the commerce up and down the river," said Mike Love, the master chief officer who captains the Sangamon cutter.

Adm. Paul Zukunft, who heads the Coast Guard, said it's not the most glamorous Coast Guard duty, but he stressed the importance of the role the cutters play on the nation's rivers and the challenges faced by the old fleet.

He cited his recent visit to the Smilax cutter, which is ported in Atlantic Beach, N.C., and was commissioned in 1944, back when no women worked on the boats.

It still cannot accommodate a mixed-gender crew.

Zukunft said $20 million is needed to bring the Coast Guard's fleet of cutters, which include 36 on inland waterways, up to modern standards. He said he's optimistic he'll get more funding from Congress.

"The aging fleet of the Coast Guard is a concern for us all on the river system," said Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of America's Central Port in Granite City.

Those in the barge industry have heard for years about broken-down cutters when they request navigation aids be placed out early in the spring, he said, and continue to seek federal money to help bolster those efforts.

And those aboard the cutters would be glad to see more money for the boats too.

Take for instance the Sangamon, which usually is assigned to the Illinois River between Grafton and Joliet, Ill.

Recently, that patrol has extended at times to the Mississippi River near St. Louis, which normally would be covered by the Coast Guard cutter Cheyenne.

But the Cheyenne's crane was broken -- it sat out of commission along the St. Louis shore. And the company that builds the cranes hasn't manufactured the parts needed to repair the crane since the 1980s.

"We're trying to repair old systems with old parts," said Nate Sancarranco, the Sangamon's chief engineer. That means an intensive search is required to find the parts, or they have to be pulled from another ship.

Water transportation moves 60 percent of U.S. grain for export, and the largest commodity it moves is petroleum -- 244 million tons annually, according to the American Waterways Operators association.

The group also says 20 percent of the nation's coal is moved on the water, and that the nation's domestic maritime industry supports 500,000 jobs with $100 billion in economic output.

"Our river levels rise and fall continuously. The constant fluctuation in water levels and the flow of the current causes the channels to shift and change, creating a navigation challenge," said Dave O'Loughlin, senior vice president of vessel operations and customer service for the Nashville, Tenn.-based Ingram Barge Co., in a statement.

He also said Coast Guard provides an essential service by marking navigational channels with buoys and that modernizing the fleet "should be prioritized for the sake of safety and growing the nation's economy."

Until then, it's making use of what's there now.

Ryan Agre, chief executive officer of the Cheyenne, summed it up this way: "We're working with 1960s technology to find where the water goes from deep to shallow."

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