The Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority won't be alone this year as it searches for funding to dredge its harbor.
According to Dan Overbey, director of the port authority, seven of the nine ports in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Memphis District have recently learned they also will no longer receive the corps' dredging services as they have in the past. Included locally are the New Madrid County and Pemiscot County port authorities and the Hickman-Fulton County Port Authority in Kentucky.
David Madison, executive director of the Pemiscot County Port Authority, said the port is at the mercy of anyone who can possibly help find money because earmarks are no longer available to members of Congress. Earmarks were used to fund dredging services. Madison, like Overbey, hopes some of the $1 billion in emergency funding for the corps to address recent Mississippi River and Missouri River floods could be allocated for dredging. Madison said the Pemiscot County port is not in danger of closing this year but that could happen later if the harbor was not dredged.
The New Madrid County Port could close this year unless funds for dredging are found, said Timmie Lynn Hunter, the port's executive director. In the past year and a half, Hunter said, two tenants, Agrium Advanced Technologies and Crop Production Services, have paid a combined $56 million in capital investment to locate at the port. If no other options for dredging become available, she said, the port will look into asking the tenants to help pay for dredging, but there is no guarantee the request would be well-received. The tenants, who have long-term leases, could pick up and move, Hunter said, taking more than 150 jobs with them. The port also serves Riceland Industries.
Money the port receives from the tenants' lease payments goes back into building roads, rails, warehousing, mooring, truck scales and land purchases to accommodate prospective tenants. In the case the port is forced to close, Hunter said, it would not reopen. Hunter said the harbor has to be dredged this year, especially because of extra silt due to flooding.
Hunter said another company had talked of expanding at the port, but she doubts it will now that dredging won't happen.
"Our big selling point has been that Congress mandates that the corps dredge our harbor here," Hunter said.
Hunter received a call from a Memphis District representative June 24 who said the corps could no longer dredge the harbor because the New Madrid port hasn't met a shipping requirement. The corps says ports must maintain a five-year average of 1 million tons. The Southeast Missouri Port Authority, which lies in the corps' St. Louis District, was told of the same requirement last year when the corps also said they would not be dredging its harbor. Hunter said the call was the first she had heard of the requirement for the New Madrid port.
Corps Memphis District spokesman Jim Pogue said budget shortfalls are the reason the corps will no longer provide dredging. All of the corps' direction and fund allocation comes from the federal government, he said, and cuts to harbor dredging are not just regional.
"Down in New Orleans they are having a tough time keeping the deep-draft channel open for large oceangoing ships," Pogue said.
The money to dredge large areas last year along the river near New Orleans came from federal government stimulus funds, which he said now are gone.
Hunter said the New Madrid Port Authority has done its part as a job creator for the county and now needs the federal government to do its part in order for the port to stay open.
"We've done everything we said we were going to do out there. We've put in jobs and we've matched funds for infrastructure," Hunter said. But she said none of it would have been or would continue to be possible without federally maintained harbor dredging.
Hunter said the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority was lucky to find funds for dredging last year from a community development block grant. She has made calls to the offices of Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Roy Blunt and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson inquiring about any federal funding that might be available. She said Blunt and Emerson's offices responded with questions about the situation at the port, and she expected to hear back soon from McCaskill's office.
"It would be pretty sad if we lost everything we have out there," Hunter said.
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