HERCULANEUM • A Mississippi River port has long been touted as a way to boost Jefferson County’s economy, but getting the sought-after barge traffic remained elusive.
Now the project is moving closer to reality. Next on the checklist to bring the port plan to fruition: barge parking lots and a loading dock.
Both need approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. Also, Herculaneum has yet to grant a business license to Riverview Commerce Park, where in the meantime bargeloads of frac sand have been loaded since September on 18 acres leased from Doe Run Co.
Jefferson County organized a port authority decades ago, but its efforts have been stymied by two factors: no place to build a port, and no good routes to connect the river to nearby Interstate 55.
Solutions to those problems have emerged in recent years. The end of smelting at the Doe Run lead plant in Herculaneum opened up riverfront land, and the Joachim Creek Bridge opened in 2012, providing the sought-after interstate connection. Other sites in Pevely and Crystal City are expected to be part of the project.
The Jefferson County Port Authority got $600,000 in state money to build a fleeting area — essentially a parking lot for barges — where the port authority hopes to load and unload barges and make it a turnaround point for barges coming from New Orleans, according to an initial proposal.
That plan called for building concrete piers and running steel cables across the river’s shore and into the water to tie up as many as 60 barges, arranged in a configuration of six wide by 10 long.
But residents who own waterfront property fought a proposed location for the fleeting area near their properties in the northern part of Herculaneum, even hiring a maritime lawyer to write a letter on their behalf.
The Coast Guard and some in the river industry also raised concerns, saying that location could be an impediment to navigating the Mississippi, said Pat Lamping, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Corporation. The port authority falls under the corporation’s umbrella.
On Wednesday, the port authority board voted to pull that proposal from consideration. Instead, it will seek approval for three fleeting areas for 55 barges with a smaller number of barges in the area that caused worry, Lamping said.
“Our plans are to substantially reduce the number of barges in the northern area,” Lamping said, saying the board took very seriously the concerns of the residents. He said the fleeting areas could be operating by the end of the year.
Troy Cardona, a Jefferson County judge who has lived along the river for more than 20 years, welcomed the revised plan. Cardona, was one of roughly 40 property owners who worried about the fleeting area’s proposed location. He said he hopes it will be “considerate” of people who live there and who enjoy the riverfront and bluff areas.
Three fleeting areas is good news from the landowners’ perspective and will mean less-disruptive activity at a single location, said Donald Sweeney, associate director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a former economist for the Army Corps of Engineers.
However, it also is likely to result in more costly operations for the port’s fleeting activities because they are now spread out over a greater distance, he said.
“It is always a challenge to balance competing interests (landowners, environmental and navigation in this case) for a scarce resource,” Sweeney said.
A proposed dock would be on land leased by Doe Run to Riverview Commerce Park, a partnership of Environmental Operations Inc., J.H. Berra Construction Co. and Fred Weber Inc. Its only client so far is Mississippi Sand LLC, said Mark Denton, a Fred Weber project manager who oversees the Riverview site.
Frac sand, made of silica sand and used in hydraulic fracturing operations known as fracking, is loaded into covered barges, sometimes enough to fill two a day.
Riverview is seeking permission from the Corps of Engineers to build a 50-by-250-foot floating deck that would be moored near the bank. Access ramps would be built so they can adjust in height with changing river elevations. The structure would allow materials to be loaded into empty barges and unloaded from barges onto trucks.
Meanwhile, the city wants to ensure trucks coming to the port aren’t spilling potentially dangerous contaminants, such as silica sand that comes from the St. Peter Sandstone mined in Fred Weber’s quarry near Festus. The city is working hard to lift itself from the stigma of pollution brought on by more than a century of smelting at Doe Run.
The sand is expensive and nobody wants it spilled, Denton assured residents and city officials at a public forum last month in Herculaneum.
“It needs to get on the barge,” he stressed.
Herculaneum last month hired Dan Lang, the Bowling Green city administrator who has experience with ports and zoning, as a consultant to help develop a port district. He will be paid $4,000.
Ideas about how to rezone the proposed port area are expected to be discussed Monday at Herculaneum’s planning and zoning commission meeting, said Jim Kasten, city administrator and also a port authority board member.
“We want to be inviting but be conscious of the surrounding community,” Kasten said.
The city’s Board of Aldermen is expected to vote March 10 on whether to issue a temporary business license to Riverview Commerce Park. Kasten said a vote on issuing a permanent license won’t happen until more details about the operation’s future plans are known.