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High water in 2019 impacts river traffic; local public terminal still has banner year

A little rain last year didn’t prevent Pine Bluff’s port public terminal from breaking a 15-year record for total tonnage moved through the facility.

Of course, in reality, “a little” translates to record-setting rainfall and high water in 2019 that halted traffic for weeks on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. Despite that interruption, the local public terminal handled a total of 152,893 tons of inbound commodities--making 2019’s throughput the best since 2005.

Watco Terminal & Port Services operates the terminal for the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Port Authority. Mike Murphy, general manager for Watco operations at Pine Bluff, West Memphis and Blytheville, told authority members in December that 2019’s high-water crisis created the first-ever situation in which the local terminal was out of service because barges couldn’t get to the terminal.

However, Murphy stressed, the terminal never actually went out of service due to the high water, and the back-up of barges downstream eventually allowed the terminal to pick up tonnage typically destined for farther upstream.

The total of commodities arriving by barge last year was 111,458 tons. That included 67,319 tons of steel wire rod, over 19,000 tons of vermiculite, and nearly 25,000 tons of fertilizers categorized as either DAP, potash, urea or triple.

Terminal Manager Chad Lester reported that one of the drivers for the notable wire rod tonnage was being able to “land FTZ cargo” at the Pine Bluff terminal. The port’s foreign trade zone (FTZ) designation was a huge advantage for customers and other shippers during the high water.

Inbound rail tonnage totaling 41,435 tons was made up of raw materials that were transloaded to truck at the terminal for delivery to a customer at Dumas.

Watco expenditures at the terminal in 2019 totaled $1.4 million for improvements, repairs and equipment, according to Murphy.

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