Louisiana’s congressional delegation is making a full-court press, joining shippers and traders on an issue that they said has reached a crisis level: Mississippi River dredging.
Due to the recent floods, more silt has been deposited at the mouth of the river, making it shallower and less navigable for ships. Last month, an oil tanker ran aground about five miles north of the Gulf of Mexico.
Shipping organizations in the state like to see the river maintained at a depth of 45 feet. Recently, the depth dropped to 43 feet and as low as 40 feet in the Baton Rouge region of the river.
Maritime organizations estimate that for every foot of encroachment, the industry loses $1 million per vessel.
The amount of silt that has accumulated is double that of an average year, 60 million cubic yards, enough to fill the Superdome 13 times.
The Louisiana congressional delegation is moving on several fronts to try to resolve the issue.
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, has introduced legislation, the Realize America’s Maritime Promise Act, called RAMP, that would require the federal government to release a $5.6 billion surplus in the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for dredging.
In 1986, Congress passed the fund, which is financed through a 0.125 percent tax on cargo imported or moved by foreign vessels between two American ports.
Administrations have ignored the law, spending only one-half to two-thirds of the money for harbor maintenance while using the remainder for increased federal spending in other areas of the budget.
Boustany’s legislation, which will soon be considered by the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, would require the money be dedicated to dredging. Boustany first learned of the problem in 2005 from officials at the Port of Lake Charles, he said.
“It’s constantly underfunded with regards to dredging,” Boustany said. “And then you get an emergency on the Mississippi and they want to take even more money to shift funds. It has created a lot of problems.”
Last week, U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, succeeded in getting an amendment passed that will dedicate $6.3 million in dredging funds.
Port of New Orleans officials estimate that about $95 million is needed by the cash-strapped U.S. Army Corps of Engineer to properly dredge the region. Securing the funding, however, is a victory, Scalise said.
“It sends a message to the Corps of Engineers that dredging is a priority,” Scalise said. “We said it is a priority of the Congress.”
Scalise found the money in another part of the corps budget, he said.
“The corps made it clear that they’re shifting the money away from what was going into dredging to other parts of their budget,” Scalise said. “And we feel like you kill jobs and you hurt the ability of our country to move commerce.”
U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., are hoping to secure dredging money if President Barack Obama sends a supplemental spending package to Congress that would include disaster funding.
“This waterway is critical to transporting oil, gas, coal, steel and other goods that are vital to not only the local economy, but our entire nation’s economy as well,” Landrieu said in a statement.
That $95 million needed should be part of the plan, said Matt Gresham, a spokesman for the Port of New Orleans.
“We just try to have that used for its intended purpose,” Gresham said. “It’s not money we need to collect, it’s money not being used for its intended purpose.”
U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, is the only member of the Louisiana delegation who has not signed on to the RAMP legislation. Landry, who sits on the transportation committee that will handle the bill, said he has concerns about whether the House could block the appropriation legislatively.
Landry, however, said he will support the bill as it moves through his committee and the House.
“The problem with the Mississippi is exactly the problem that the American people have with Congress,” Landry said. “When you lawfully dedicate money for a specific purpose, it should be used for that purpose.”
Gerard Shields is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is GerardShields@aol.com.