WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Coast Guard is in the middle of taking public comments on a proposal that would allow river barge traffic on the east side of Lake Michigan as far north as the Port of Muskegon.
The Michigan Agri-Business Assoc. (MABA) as well as local officials in Muskegon are spearheading the project. "Agriculture is one of Michigan’s largest and fastest-growing sectors, and we depend on reliable transportation options," said Jim Byrum, president of MABA, early last month.
"As agriculture continues to grow, options for moving commodities and inputs must expand to keep up. Allowing river barge access on Lake Michigan will give Michigan’s agriculture industry more access to efficient and cost-effective water transportation, which will ultimately grow our industry, create jobs and boost Michigan’s economy."
The proposal has been in the works for more than a year now. MABA, some farmers and ag-related businesses believe local commerce would benefit if grain and other agricultural products could be moved via barges that stop at the Port of Muskegon. Right now the amount of business that can be conducted via barges on the east side of Lake Michigan is restricted by regulations.
According to a summary of the petition, the Coast Guard is being asked to establish a special load line-exempted route in Lake Michigan, similar to an existing exempted route along the western shore between Calumet and Milwaukee, Wis. The new exempted area would extend from Calumet Harbor near Chicago all the way to Muskegon, Mich.
Route restrictions and so-called load-line inspections are seen as prohibiting most river barge commerce on the east side of the lake. "There have been opportunities for commerce – fertilizer movement – to Michigan, but this requirement has stopped those transactions," Byrum wrote in a letter to the Coast Guard last September. "There is also interest in moving grain southbound on barges."
Much of the public comment on the government’s website for that purpose has been favorable. One commenter, Alan Peters, said his business is involved with the feed industry.
"We struggle with getting enough feed products into the state to supply our feed industry," he wrote. "By allowing us to run river barges, we feel it would improve our efficiency to provide products to our customers. There are numerous ingredients that could be loaded in various points along the Mississippi River and shipped efficiently into Michigan."
Some commenters were either opposed to the proposal or had reservations. People expressed concerns about the potential for more pollution, especially if hazardous products such as oil begin to be moved on the barges. Other commenters were concerned more barge traffic would allow the migration of Asian carp into Lake Michigan.
One commenter, identifying himself only as a ship captain, expressed concerns about the safety of allowing barge traffic on the new proposed route.
"River barges are built for protected waters, where sea conditions are zero to max a couple feet, with very small amplitude," he wrote. "They find efficiency by rafting together many barges that can be propelled by one tug. This is not feasible, except on rare summer days and then only sporadically, on the open waters of the Great Lakes.
"It is still a 100-mile approximate journey on open Lake Michigan and wave amplitude would tear rafted barges apart in short order."
In his letter to the Coast Guard last September, Byrum addressed the issue of safety by stating today’s barge fleets have been upgraded to higher standards than when the regulations were put in place and that weather forecasting technology is more sophisticated. Also, today’s tugboats have GPS technology and more horsepower, Byrum stated.
Anyone can comment on the proposal by going online to www.regulations.gov
Enter the docket number USCG-2013-0954 to find the proposal and already published comments. The deadline for comment is Aug. 25.