Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A reminder of riverboat gambling heading downriver

Remember a hundred years ago – or was it only twenty – that riverboat gambling was the next big thing in tourism? Here in West Virginia, legislators argued for a while over whether the state should approve riverboat casino gambling as a possible new revenue source. While West Virginia argued, other states acted.

One of those was Indiana. It got a leg up in the gambling arms race, which never ends. Other states got in on the act, too, and soon enough West Virginia lost its excursion boat West Virginia  Belle to Missouri, where it was converted into a casino.

Soon enough, though, riverboat casinos were replaced by on-shore casinos. Now a relic of the riverboat gambling days is about to leave the Ohio. News reports say the casino boat at Lawrenceburg, Ind., which was replaced by a casino barge a few years ago, is about to depart for the New Orleans area or perhaps below. Is it following towboats to the Rio Parana in Argentina? No one is saying.

Now, about the gambling arms race: The West Virginia Lottery is looking ahead to the possibility that sports betting might become legal in its state. According to my former coworker Jim Workman, legislation has been introduced to allow some sports betting legally.

If West Virginia legalizes sports betting, other states will follow. It's how things work.

Louisville's sewage tunnels

Some cities along the Ohio River have combined sewage and stormwater systems. When there's a heavy rain, sewers are overwhelmed and water flows untreated into the river.

The EPA doesn't like that, as you might expect.

In Louisville, the answer is drilling tunnels under the city and the river to store the overflow until it can be pumped back up and treated.

Sounds kind of drastic, but it's probably either that or spend billions on a new collector system that prevents stormwater and what is politely called wastewater from ever mingling in the first place.

(This story brought back memories of the early and mid 1980s. In 1984 and 1985, I claimed the unofficial world sewer writing championship. I was covering Lawrence County, Ohio, for the Huntington WV paper at the time, and it seemed that every town along the river needed major improvements to its collection and treatment systems. But that's an entry for another day.).

Saturday, January 27, 2018

M/V Savage Insight

The M/V Savage Insight passed through the Huntington WV area yesterday evening. The former Shirley P. Settoon was headed upbound past the former Lock and Dam 27 when we got these images

I like this spot for getting boat photos, as the background is relatively uncluttered. But as with any shooting spot, you have to note the time of day and position of the sun.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Four photos from yesterday

The M/V Higman Leader passing Huntington, W.Va.

The nice thing about this picture is that I shot it from a public right of way. Between me and the river was a house. As I was shooting, a woman told me I was free to go down in her yard and get my river shots any time I wanted. That was awful nice of her, as we say in these parts.

Here, the M/V Debbie Graham visits what used to be Merdie Boggs' Boat Store. I didn't think to see what name is on the sign now.

And the M/V Paul G. Blazer approaches Sand-O Harbor, or whatever people call it now, with empties from a recent trip downriver.

The Blazer is a sister boat of the Nashville, formerly known as the Valvoline. Twenty years ago this spring I got to ride the Valvoline from the Belleville Locks and Dam to Kenova, W.Va. It was a great day and a great trip. Too bad no photos from that trip survive, for some reason.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Two items in the news

Engineering News-Record takes a short look at progress on the Olmsted Locks and Dam project. It could raise its pool this summer, meaning the end of operations at locks and dams 52 and 53, which have been in service since 1929 and are well past the stage of being described as worn out.

# # #

The  William  H. Harsha Bridge over the Ohio River at Maysville, Ky., is in line for some work to correct some deficiencies. The article does not describe what the deficiencies are, though.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Off topic: CSX releases data on 2017 coal shipments (Updated)

The export coal business was good for CSX last year, while the domestic side, which caters mainly to power plants, continued to face what the money people call "headwinds".

CSX released its fourth-quarter and year-end financial results after the stock market closed at 4 p.m. today. The other major railroad in the eastern U.S., Norfolk Southern, releases its fourth-quarter results next week.

Because of how the calendar fell, CSX's fiscal 2016 had 53 weeks, which affects its year-to-year comparisons.

In the domestic coal business, CSX reported, "Utility coal volume declined reflecting the competitive loss of short-haul interchange traffic as well as strong competition from natural gas. Coke, iron ore and other volume declined, primarily driven by sourcing shifts and a temporary outage at a steel producer."

On the export side, "Volume increased as global supply levels and pricing conditions supported strong growth in U.S. coal exports."

CSX hauled 61.1 million tons of coal for domestic markets last year, down from 69.9 million tons in its 53-week fiscal 2016. It hauled 36.2 million tons of export coal, up from 25.7 million tons.

Executives are on a conference call with investment analysts at the moment. I'll listen to the replay later and — I hope — have an update later.

On a side note, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was good for CSX's reported net income. The tax reform package boosted its fourth-quarter earnings by $3.157 billion. Q4 net was $4.14 billion, up from $458 million in the fourth quarter of 2016. Even without the tax change, net income for the quarter was  still up, at $573 million.

# # #

The conference call was more than an hour and a half, with very little of that devoted to the coal business. That's understandable, as the company's CEO passed away last month and a new guy is in charge. There has also been turmoil to deal with regarding service issues as CSX implemented its Precision Scheduled Railroading program.

As a result, there were few questions from analysts about coal. What was asked and what was said was pretty much in the expected range.

In his prepared remarks, CEO James Foote said, "Shipments to our northern utilities were down substantially, but shipments to southern utilities were up 5 percent."

In the Q&A that followed, Foote said, "Coal is very strong here for us, the outlook for us for export met and steam coal right now continues to be favorable despite everyone predicting earlier that it was not going to be, and so the question is how long is that going to hang in there and the challenges that we have with our domestic steam coal franchise, especially the northern utilities where they are being displaced by natural gas."

Foote said more details will be available at the company's investment conference in a few weeks.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Kirby flotilla heading north

This afternoon the M/V City of Redwood passed Huntington WV pushing three of 15 boats Kirby Inland Marine sold to Ohio River Salvage of Pittsburgh. One flotilla of nine boats has already arrived in Pittsburgh. The one seen today is one of two three-boat flotillas also headed north.

The City of Redwood was pushing two barges in addition to the three boats. The boats were on the starboard side of the barges. So, if you want to get the best look as the flotilla heads upriver, you'll need to be on a bridge or on the West Virginia side of the river.

You'll need to be careful, though. The river is up, and a lot of good shooting locations probably are under water. I know they are here.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Uh oh

A towboat on the Big Sandy took on water, and now it's leaking oil, according to the Coast Guard.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Off Topic: New York City's commuter train tunnels

The infrastructure nightmare known as Lock and Dam 52 should go out of operation this summer when the new Olmsted Locks and Dam raises its pool. When it and Lock and Dam 53 are removed, that will be the end of the old low-lift system was completed in 1929 — nearly 90 years ago.

Of course, the three uppermost dams on the Ohio — Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery — have their problems, too, and they will need to be addressed at some point before a catastrophic failure occurs.

But they will have to compete with other lock and dam problems on other inland rivers that have had to wait while Olmsted has eaten up so much of the available money.

Speaking of competition, this article on Bloomberg details a number of problems with the crumbling passenger train infrastructure in the New York City area. If the problem gets worse — and the article says it will — you can expect heavy pressure from congressmen in that area for federal help.

The Bloomberg article is long, but it's worth taking the time to read.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Some boats from this weekend

As seen passing Huntington WV ...

The Louise S.

The Debbie Graham.

The Jackie Englert.

Another of the Jackie Englert. There is no reason for this marina sign to interest me during a period of ice. It just does.

The Bill Stegbauer.

And the Linda Edith Tripp.

Crounse seems to be sending some boats up this way that it traditionally has used on the lower Ohio and the tributaries down there. I don't know why it's doing that. I'm just glad it is.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Ice. Ice. More ice.

After spending some time whining that we haven't had much river ice here in the Huntington WV area despite the prolonged cold spell, I finally got to see and photograph some of it today in two separate sessions. I might have gotten what I call a book-quality photo.

There are lots of photos waiting to be edited. The plan now is to put some up tonight to whet your  appetite and post a few more tomorrow when I have some time to edit them.

So here are the first four for your enjoyment.

First, my favorite bridge spanning an icy river.

Earlier in the day, a boat went down the river (I think), clearing a narrow channel. Later in the day, the M/V Jackie Englert came up the river and cleared a wider path.

Here is beautiful downtown Huntington, also known as America's Best Community, located less than an hour west of hip, historic Almost Heaven downtown Charleston, beside an icy river.

And here is how downtown Huntington looked from the other side of the river.

One more: The M/V Linda Edith Tripp (I think) pushing 15 coal barges down the Ohio.

Perhaps more tomorrow unless enough people complain about all the ice.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Sounds of river ice

First, let's get the still photo out of the way. The river ice here at Huntington WV is nowhere near as bad as it is farther up the river. And my camera battery decided it doesn't like working very hard in cold weather, thank you very much.

So, my attempts to get some pictures of the ice during daylight were not that great. But this evening, coming down Route 2 just below old Lock and Dam 27, the orange light of dusk showed what it could do with light river ice in the hands of an expert photographer. Or in my hands, as they were the only ones available.

Earlier in the day, I watched the M/V Louise S pass the mouth of the Guyandotte River. I was about to give up getting anything until I heard the sound its wake made as it pushed the sheet ice along the shore up and down. You know those videos where people skip rocks on a frozen lake? I heard something like that.

Here's an iPhone video of how it sounded. You can hear the Louise S engine sounds, but the ice grinding sounds are pretty cool.

If my first attempt to load video to this blog failed, you can try this link to YouTube.

The Weather Service says we should have one more night of brutal cold tonight, then warmer weather moves in tomorrow (Sunday). The way I figure, we should be just about thawed out when the electric and water bills arrive.

Friday, January 5, 2018

In the news, 1/5/18

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reporting that traffic has been halted at Lock and Dam 52 at Paducah because of low water levels. That's not surprising, as this area at least has not had much precipitation since early December, if then

Wednesday we were down at the river looking for ice. There were some small pieces out in the river, but they weren't moving, which told me there was little or no current. No rain, no current. Yesterday and today, the channel was empty of ice, possibly because of the constant wind that was churning up some waves.

They're having some ice in the upper part of the river, as this article in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains.

On a local note, people in one local Facebook group that I follow are talking about the freeze of 1977. I remember the weather that brought that about. It was the year that Huntington had problems getting road salt because a towboat was having trouble getting up the river because of all the ice. It was also the year the M/V Claire Beatty sank at the Markland Locks and Dam when it was trapped by ice.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Off topic: Eastern railroad coal traffic

CSX and Norfolk Southern have filed their 2017 Week 52 carload reports, and it gives an idea of how the coal business is doing in the Eastern U.S. These are carloads, not tons, and these numbers contain no financial information. That comes later this month or next when the two railroads release their fourth-quarter and year-end earnings reports.

CSX reported a 4.6 percent increase in carloads of coal for the year, from 765,846 in 2016 to 801,195 in 2017.

Norfolk Southern reported a 16.6 percent increase, from 835,531 in 2016 to 973,911 in 2017.

Executives will likely discuss these numbers in more detail when they have their conference calls with investment analysts following release of the quarterly earnings and performance reports.

As a side note, as part of the late E. Harrison Hunter's Precision Scheduled Railroading program at CSX, the number of locomotives in use fell from 3,200 at the end of September to 2,998 at the end of December. The number of people on trains and engines likewise fell in that period, from 9,445 to 8,909.

Speaking of coal, I checked the PJM Interconnect to see what fuel sources were carrying the load as of 4 p.m. during this cold snap. Coal was providing about 40 percent of total generation in this region, which stretches from New Jersey into Ohio and Eastern Kentucky. Nuclear was at 28 percent, gas 20 percent and renewables 4 percent. Other sources made up the difference.

Items in the news

Hiding on a barge is probably not the best way to try to stay warm in January. Assuming it was a barge and not a boat (a lot of journalists don't know the difference)

Especially when the river, especially in the upper reaches, begins to ice over. Eh, people excited about this ice should look up 1977 in their archives.

Meanwhile, people in Cairo are trying another effort to bring some economic growth to their community. The latest idea is a bulk products port on the Mississippi River.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Not much ice here at Mile 308

I've seen pictures and read things about ice forming in the Upper Ohio, but here in the middle part of the river,  the only ice we see is close to shore in areas of little to no current. For example, these floating flat pieces of ice at Harris Riverfront Park in beautiful downtown Huntington.

Even the ice sculptures formed by wave action on solid objects in the water have not had time to form into unusual shapes as contrasted with more normal ones such as this.

We would probably get more ice here if we had colder weather of longer duration, but most people I know will pass on that.

Cold weather helps coal

I wrote this last night, figuring I would post it this evening:

“Sometime around the end of this month and toward the beginning of next month, we’ll be hearing from people who are happy this cold snap has hung around as long as it has. Those people are the CEOs of American Electric Power, FirstEnergy, EQT, CSX and Norfolk Southern.

“AEP and FirstEnergy sell electricity. EQT sells natural gas that goes to power plants. CSX and NS haul coal to power plants. Long periods of cold weather mean people use more electricity and/or gas to heat their homes and businesses, so these folks probably are happy. Very happy.”

This evening my email alerts bring news that (a) the U.S. set a record on New Year’s Day for the most natural gas burned in one day, (b) natural gas futures prices today jumped to $3.05 per MMBtu, which makes coal competitive with gas in power generation, and (c) in the PJM electric market region, which includes West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and parts of Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana, cold weather made coalthe dominant source of electricity again.

Monday, January 1, 2018

And the first towboat sighting of 2018 is ...

... the M/V Bill Stegbauer, seen here upbound passing old Lock and Dam 27.

And kids, here's a handy photography tip. If you're about to go out looking for something to take a picture of, remember to bring your camera in the house the night before the temperature goes down to 4 degrees.