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Barge numbers way up at Winona port owing to grain, gypsum; frac sand still absent

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Busy barge season on the Mississippi

Barges are seen in the Mississippi River near the Minnesota Marine Art Museum on Wednesday. This season has been unusually busy for barges along the river, attributed in part to the volume of grain being shipped.

Barge traffic in Winona has seen consistent increases in Winona this year, despite significant changes in some of the industries that rely on shipping commodities on the Mississippi River.

The Winona Port Authority reported that as of June, there have been significantly higher numbers of barge traffic than both in the previous month, or compared with June a year ago.

In June 2015, 102 barges moved through the city docks, compared with the 187 in June this year.

Since the river opened for shipping this spring, there has been consistent harbor activity, with 469 barges recorded as of Wednesday. Last year at this time, by comparison, there had been 294.

One factor has been the entirely cooperative weather: A mild winter allowed shipping to begin in March this year, which hasn’t happened since 2012; April is more common.

Myron White, the development coordinator for the city of Winona, said low water hasn’t been a problem in the area this summer, either, which can sometimes stop shipping for several days. In 2014, the shipping channel closed for weeks while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted an emergency dredge to restore the nine-foot-deep channel.

“It’s been a busy shipping season,” White said.

The higher barge numbers are mostly attributed to increased grain activity, which have been boosting the tonnage, along with slight increases in gypsum.

Dan Nisbit, owner of CD Corp., said they will likely not be shipping much salt this year, because of the carryover from the mild winter.

Coal will also be decreasing.

Nisbit said that while coal was once around 80 percent of their business, it has since fallen to lower single digits. Now, their last coal customer has converted to natural gas.

“We’ll probably be going away from coal,” Nisbit said.

As grain stays up, there will most likely be increases in gypsum transported through the city docks in the next several years as well.

The CD Corp has been working with a partner to process gypsum into pellets, where it is used in fertilizer.

There were delays in the installation, Nisbit said, so they missed much of the spring, but are expecting it to continue to pick up going forward.

“We’re just starting to see the benefits of that,” Nisbit said.

Frac sand has remained absent from the docks, while it is still the topic of an ongoing discussion at the county level over a potential ban.

A downturn in the mining industry has resulted in the use of poorer quality but more cheaply acquired sand from areas like Texas. As quickly as it appeared in 2010, demand for sand shipping vanished in 2014 after growing exponentially in those four years. None was shipped through the docks in 2015 or so far in 2016, without any sign of returning.


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