Industrial businesses along the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge are concerned a restriction against vessels traveling at night has not been lifted nearly a year after it was implemented as a high-water safety measure, but a resolution might be in sight.

A potential resolution is expected by the end of the week industry advocates said after the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, whose members include petrochemical companies along the river, abruptly canceled a press conference Tuesday to address the issue. BRAC said there is a pending potential development but declined further comment.

Industry advocates have been pressuring local river pilots' board members for months to reverse the ban on night time shipments and appealed to the state for help. 

The restriction to daylight hours on the river in the Baton Rouge area is significant because petrochemical plants lining the shore are nonstop operations for efficiency and to meet customer demand.

“They have to run 24 hours a day because they are global companies,” said Connie Fabre, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, and need uninterrupted Mississippi River access. 

BRAC appealed to Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature to take action regarding the issue, which is compounded by the fact that the restriction only applies to the Baton Rouge section of the river and doesn’t impact New Orleans.

BRAC insisted that the restriction is “having a negative impact on the Capital Region’s economy and its competitiveness” and that major industry along the Mississippi River “depends on reliable and routine access to the river to move goods and these restrictions are dramatically increasing costs and impacting daily operations for thousands of workers.”

“Unexplained restrictions on river vessel traffic without validation from the U.S. Coast Guard or other experts is very disturbing,” Tyler Gray, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, wrote in a Feb. 3 letter to the NOBRA board and to Gov. Edwards, among other elected officials. 

“The river is a critical means of transportation for massive amounts of products produced in Louisiana and a large portion of the United States. Equally as critical are the enormous quantities of feedstocks and raw materials that traverse the river daily,” Gray wrote.

In late April 2019, the New Orleans Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association board of examiners, which consists of three members, voted to enforce restrictions for river pilots navigating the Mississippi River to only daylight hours, citing safety concerns amid high water.

“In order to further enhance the safety and well being of the citizens of Louisiana, as well as to prevent any imminent peril to public health, safety and welfare, and to achieve and maintain reliable, safe and efficient pilotage services … all vessel travel … on the entire NOBRA route … shall be daylight only,” Robert Heitmeier, president of the NOBRA board of examiners, wrote in an April 2019 letter to the NOBRA pilots. 

The restriction was described as an “emergency procedure” and that it was a safety issue. 

The board of examiners, which was tasked by the Louisiana Legislature to ensure safety, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

ExxonMobil, which has petrochemical facilities along the river in Baton Rouge, has been concerned about the issue for months. 

“The NOBRA Pilot restrictions have caused considerable impacts to our business and others on the river, and create uncertainty for continued operations and future investment,” said Stephanie Cargile, spokesperson for ExxonMobil.

The plants operate nonstop, so limiting when vessels can ship in and out disrupts normal business. 

“The NOBRA restrictions constrain our operations to short windows of daylight-only movement of products," Cargile said. "We cannot compete in a global market when the major artery for commerce in Louisiana is only open in daylight.”

ExxonMobil has watched ships not piloted by NOBRA members pass by during the day and night for several months, she said.

Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.