7 months ago

Alabama’s coal industry continues to fuel the expanding Port of Mobile

MOBILE – With the news breaking Monday that Alabama’s entire congressional delegation supports the proposed modernization and expansion – including major deepening and widening – of the Port of Mobile, I am once again left in awe at what the Port – and its success – means for the entire state.

It was a surprisingly cool summer day when I visited the Port in August, a steady breeze off the water making the normally blanket-like heat quite bearable. I was there on a tour organized by the Alabama Coal Association, with its President Patrick Cagle leading the charge.

We all shuttled in on a small transit bus, like you would find at a hotel, to the McDuffie Coal Terminal and proceeded into a small metal-sided office building for a quick briefing from the Port’s Deputy Director, Smitty Thorne, who is a longtime public servant set to retire in February.

I went into their conference room thinking I knew how important the Port was to the state and that the coal industry played a large role in that, but the facts and figures that the Port staff shared were staggering nonetheless.
First, let me just get this out of the way – the Port does not take a dime from the state budget, i.e. the General Fund. It is completely self-sufficient, generating around $160 million in annual revenue that is pumped back into continual improvements of the Port.

And the continual improvement is paying off – Alabama’s Port is the fastest growing container port in North America, at a 20 percent growth rate this year. It is now the 10th largest port between the U.S., Canada and Mexico and the second and third largest steel and coal ports respectively. The Port of Mobile also finds itself a major mover of automotive parts and breakbulk forest products.

They are constantly innovating, too. We are talking real-time tracking of individual slabs of steel with RFID chips, with them handling 3.3 million tons of slabs annually; a state-of-the-art “AutoMobile International” roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) facility that will boost automotive exports considerably when it is completed in late 2019 or early 2020; a world-class transportation network to and from the Port, including five national (Class 1) railroads, three short line railroads and easy access to both I-65 and I-10; and now the proposed plan for deepening and widening.

The Port handled a massive number of vessels in fiscal year 2017 – 1623 to be exact – and is responsible for an irreplaceable 134,608 direct and indirect jobs. That number equals a staggering 15.08 percent of Alabama’s total wage and salaried employees.

This also leads to more huge top-line numbers, including the Port’s annual economic impact of $22.4 billion and their yearly generated tax revenue of $486.9 million.

Now, let me preface this again. I knew, probably more than most, that coal played a huge part in the Port’s business. I have been to an Alabama surface mine and greatly appreciate the tremendous economic impact the coal industry has on the Yellowhammer State. But I learned something new in a big way.

Coal accounts for fifty percent – yes, half – of the Port’s total business.

Needless to say, the “War on Coal” was a huge hit to the Port and to Alabama. For example, once serving seven steam (energy-producing) coal plants, the Port now only serves two.

(Sean Ross/YHN)

But there has been an improvement after President Obama left office, with conditions and optimism considerably and rightfully higher in the industry. The Port even saw a nine percent volume increase in coal transit last year.

For the Port, a large part of their recent boon has been the emergence of Warrior Met Coal – now the Port’s single biggest customer by far.

Warrior Met mines metallurgical (met) coal used to produce coke, which is pivotal in steelmaking and has been on a tear since it bought the high-quality mines left untapped by Walter Energy’s 2016 bankruptcy.

Trading on the New York Stock Exchange (HCC), the Alabama company is excited about the good market outlook for met coal exporting, which also spells more good news for the Port. Of the 14 million tons of coal mined in the state last year, Warrior Met accounted for 7.5 million – well over fifty percent.

At the end of the briefing, Deputy Director Thorne said that the surging economic conditions, for the Port especially led by strong outlooks for the Alabama met coal and steel industries, meant that they anticipated 2018 to show another year of double-digit percentage growth.

It was on that note of optimism that we embarked from the unassuming office to tour the McDuffie Coal Terminal itself.

Stepping outside the narrow office doors, you look around and can not help but see coal and containers. They each rise high – cities of containers, plateaus of coal towering as far as the eye can wander.

We got back on the shuttle bus, headed eventually to hop aboard a tugboat. On the first attempt to get there, we ran into a train stopped on an intersection we needed to get to. The driver of the Great Southern Wood truck in front of us might not have been too pleased, but the train being at a standstill was actually a good thing, a sign of the rising economic tide, as it had stopped to take double its normal load due to an uptick in business.

We turned around and circled to the other side of McDuffie. As I first noticed when we had arrived, there were puddles everywhere – which was strange since it had not rained that day or the day previous. But it finally struck me as we drove by a sign that read “15 mph … think dust.” The Port is so dusty – think thousands of acres of dirt – that they have to water the barren ground just to stop it from kicking up into workers’ and drivers’ faces.

It was explained to us shortly after that the Port uses their own drainage water on the roads and shoulders to control the dust – another simple but cost-saving innovation.

When we arrived at the Parker Towing vessel to go out on the water, I could feel the teeming energy of the place building – the train cars rumbling, the salt air blowing softly and the peaceful ebb of the water making the buzzing optimism of the place come alive. Everything about the place was striking – even the simple contrast of little white birds flittering about on the jet-black masses of coal.

We boarded after a safety lesson and donning vests, out onto the water to see where the hard work happens. It was a confluence of characters, all who make the Port’s success possible, that made the tour so meaningful.

Besides the ever-so-important and equally under-appreciated Port employees, you had the Parker Towing employees, who are top-notch operators of barges and waterway freight up and down Alabama’s waterways; Warrior Met employees, many of whom have been in the coal industry for a lifetime and came over from Walter Energy or other companies that did not survive the Obama Administration; Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington, who is helping lead Gov. Ivey’s historic employment successes; and public officials, including incoming state legislators Chris Elliot and Shane Stringer and Rep. David Sessions, who will be transitioning into the state Senate this coming term.

The Port is the lifeblood of Alabama, and the coal industry is largely the driver of this status – again, think fifty percent of the Port’s business. To experience first-hand what goes into making this possible was rewarding. But to see Alabama’s congressional delegation cross the normal partisan lines this week to ensure the Port’s future competitiveness was historic.

As Sen. Richard Shelby said, “This project will create an avenue for exponential growth.”

As the proposed plan for its expansion moves forward in the approval process, remember the real impact the Port has. Not only the dollars and cents, but the people – again, 134,608 jobs. If you take into account the average Alabama household size, this equates to over 340,000 people that rely on the Port of Mobile for their livelihood.

Without the coal industry, this number would not be nearly as large. So, when you hear a politician say that only a handful of counties have mines and are affected by the industry, just know the real facts.

From Sand Mountain through the Birmingham metro area even into the Black Belt and down to the Gulf Coast, coal is still king in Alabama.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

12 hours ago

Tuberville makes ‘values’ pitch in first campaign media appearance — ‘We’ve lost Christianity in this country’

Saturday on Huntsville radio WVNN’s “Politics and Moore,” former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville, a 2020 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama, argued that backing President Donald Trump at this point time was critical.

Tuberville, who has been absent in the local media since announcing his candidacy earlier this month up until now, explained that supporting Trump was his inspiration for running for U.S. Senate. He said the current occupant of the Senate seat, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Mountain Brook), has failed to back the president.

The former Auburn coach cited values and ideals many Americans support, including upholding of the law, religion and a good economy.

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“He brought up a lot of things the average person really clings to,” Tuberville said. “You know, about law and order – we’ve lost a lot of law and order in this country and [Trump] has brought it back. The previous administration tried to change everything and tries with everything we believe in in this country. We’ve lost Christianity in this country. It’s being attacked every day.”

“Now President Trump has got the economy going,” he continued. “He changed all the regulations that the previous administration had done. He has done so much for many people. He has got people working again and feeling good about themselves.”

However, Tuberville said his support for Trump was not absolute.

“Now do I support a whole lot of the things he tweets out and says?” Tuberville added. “No, nobody is going to agree with everybody. I tell you, I believe in what he’s doing in getting people back to work, putting money in their pockets and making them feel good about themselves and try to bring our values back. We’re losing our values. If we don’t do that, we’ll lose this country.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

14 hours ago

Vaccines, reason and freedom

The current measles outbreak has brought new criticism of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children over vaccine safety concerns. Measles was declared to be eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, and yet this year alone, 550 cases have occurred through the second week of April. Anti-vaccination attitudes, I think, reflect a decline in trust in government.

The research “anti-vaxxers” cite linking vaccines to autism, multiple sclerosis and other ailments, has been called “junk science.” The Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have pronounced vaccines safe. Physicians promoting the “danger” have faced professional censure. Despite this, I do not see the safety of vaccines as allowing us to dismiss the anti-vaccination position.

In a free nation, the government serves the people, not the other way around. Freedom means making decisions for ourselves based on our values, beliefs and assessment of risks. We do not have to justify our decisions to others, even experts. If so, then why should those of us who believe that vaccines are safe force our assessment on others?

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Parental rights differ from personal rights, as parents make decisions for their children. We recognize that parents who neglect or abuse their children should lose (at least temporarily) their parental rights. Parents should be afforded freedom to raise and protect their children as they see fit unless they abuse these rights.

Hard cases arise when parents choose faith healing and prayer over effective medical treatments. The dilemma stems from a conflict between personal and parental rights: the child hypothetically could wish to receive medical treatment. Respecting the child’s rights might require restricting parental choice.

Can we justify mandatory vaccination similarly? Several required vaccinations are for generally non-life-threatening illnesses like chickenpox, mumps, and even measles. People feared and dreaded polio before Dr. Salk’s vaccine; chickenpox was a two-week vacation from school. Preventing a brief absence from school is not grounds for trumping parental rights.

Immunization, of course, protects others besides the vaccinated. Economists call this a spillover or external benefit, which people may well ignore in vaccination decisions. An important spillover here is protecting persons with compromised immune systems who cannot be safely vaccinated.

Many economists believe that external benefits justify government mandates. I disagree, because the person immunized still benefits the most. If the person getting immunized (or the parent) believes that the cost exceeds the benefit, a small spillover benefit is unlikely to alter the balance.

Nobel prize-winning economist James Buchanan offered a better way to think about such cases. Politics, Buchanan contended, is an exchange constraint on ourselves: I agree to vaccinate my son in exchange for other parents vaccinating their children. A similar argument applies to taxes – I agree to pay taxes because you will be made to pay.

We will never all agree on any decision of significance. Government though involves the exchange of numerous constraints, and we may benefit from the package as a whole. For instance, all states require vaccination against eight viruses for school children. We might disagree with one or two of the requirements and still abide by the mandate.

Whether government constraints benefit us depends on whether we trust that politicians act in our best interest. Differences in state vaccination requirements highlight this tension. All states require vaccination against eight illnesses, typically through four shots. Beyond this, 43 and 13 states require immunization for Hepatitis B and Hepatitis A respectively. Connecticut requires nine shots; Alabama requires only four. If immunizations reflect a clear public health consensus, why do state requirements differ?

Politics and not just public health influences requirements. Debate over the relatively new HPV vaccine, which can prevent cervical cancer, reveals this. Two states and the District of Columbia require the vaccine, which costs over $200, and makers Merck and GlaxoSmithKline have lobbied lawmakers in other states for mandates. Political considerations and campaign contributions shape vaccine mandates.

Can we really trust that our politicians impose mandates on us based exclusively on our interests and sentiments? Unfortunately not. One consequence of this lack of trust is anti-vaccination skepticism.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

16 hours ago

EPA grant to University of Alabama team assists in understanding wastewater issues in rural Alabama

Researchers from the University of Alabama are shedding light on the issue of raw sewage draining into waterways of the state’s Black Belt region, a problem garnering international attention.

With a grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, UA researchers from environmental engineering and geology will build a model to quantify the extent of untreated raw sewage discharges from homes throughout five counties in the Black Belt, an economically depressed region in the state named for its dark, rich soil.

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“Basically, the big issue with rural wastewater that we see in Alabama is the confluence of impermeable soil and rural poverty,” said Dr. Mark Elliott, UA associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. “The fact is, though, the scope of that problem is not well understood.”

The situation has brought the attention of the United Nations, which sent an official to examine straight pipe drainage in 2017. There has also been national and international reporting on the conditions as studies have shown diseases and parasites common in tropical areas, and once thought contained in the United States, are appearing in the Black Belt.

Much of the country can dispose of household wastewater safely, either into a sewer system that leads to a treatment plant or into a septic system that uses engineering and natural geology to filter out contaminants before reaching the groundwater.

The Black Belt, an area of 17 counties across southwest Alabama, is often different. Underneath the topsoil is clay and chalk, which holds water. This can cause a backup of a septic system and risk sending untreated wastewater into the streams, lakes, rivers and groundwater nearby.

Added to the soil challenge, the Black Belt is a poverty-stricken area of the country, especially outside its small towns. Many find it difficult to afford advanced septic systems needed for the soil, instead using a straight pipe running from the home to some other part of the property to drain untreated wastewater.

A 2017 survey by Elliott’s group in Wilcox County conservatively estimated that 60 percent of homes drain wastewater without treatment. Elliott said it is possible more than 500,000 gallons of raw sewage enter the rivers and streams in Wilcox County each day.

Site surveys are expensive and time-consuming, so the full extent of straight pipe drainage in the region is largely unknown.

“Not knowing the scope of the problem prevents any sort of estimate of how much it costs to fix the problem or the benefits of fixing the problem,” Elliott said.

Aaron Blackwell, a graduate student in Elliott’s lab, leads the work of making maps to predict the risk of homes using straight pipe drainage. The maps combine geological information of the soil, property values from the county government and population density to show areas where there is greater risk of homes discharging untreated waste through straight pipes.

“Based on a just a few publicly available data sets, we can come up with decent estimates of where these straight pipes are located and how much wastewater is being discharged untreated to the environment,” Elliott said. “This is an important step.”

The maps can show areas where intervention could be effective, such as clusters of homes outside a town that could share a simple treatment system, he said.

The $15,000 grant to UA comes through EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet, or P3, program. Research teams receive funding to develop sustainable technologies to help solve environmental and public health challenges. The P3 competition challenges students to research, develop and design innovative projects that address a myriad of environmental protection and public health issues.

UA’s team is in the first phase of the program, and it will attend the TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo in Boston in June to showcase its research. The team can then apply for a second-phase grant for funding up to $100,000 to further the project design.

Other members of the team include Dr. Joseph Weber, UA professor of geological sciences; Dr. Sagy Cohen, UA associate professor of geological sciences, and Rebecca Greenberg, a UA graduate student studying geology.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Steve Harvey congratulates Alabama radio host on the launch of ‘The Joe Lockett Show’

For Joe Lockett, the phrase “chase your dreams” is more than a cliché — it’s reality. Six years ago, inspired by comedian Steve Harvey, Lockett left his job in the construction industry with aspirations of becoming a radio host, which are now fully realized. After years of hard work and preparation, he launched “The Joe Lockett Show” this April on WJXC 101.FM

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Lockett took to Facebook on the day of the show’s launch to thank Steve Harvey for his encouragement and inspiration.

He wrote, “I stood by Steve Harvey’s picture six years ago and said never be afraid to dream BIG. Who knew what God had in store for me and my company? I’m asking all my listeners, friends, viewers and social media followers to help me get this message to Steve Harvey or someone on his team. Why? Because I wanted to shake his hand and give him a hug and say thank you.”

The team heard about Lockett’s message and congratulated him live on “The Steve Harvey Morning Show.”

“Way to go, Joe Lockett, congratulations,” Harvey said.

Harvey followed his commendation with advice for anyone wishing to follow in Lockett’s footsteps and pursue their passion. His message? Do something you love.

“Run the race that you love to run. Wake up and chase something you love to chase. Go to bed realizing that when I wake up in the morning God willing, man I’m going to get another opportunity to get another day closer,” Harvey said.

In hopes his story will inspire others, Lockett is taking the second hour of his show, “Six 2 Six” to help his audience take action and find their calling.

In challenging his listeners to dream, Lockett says, “I want you to think of the biggest thing that you have ever wanted to do in your life.”

Check out “The Joe Lockett Show” on WJXC 101.1, Monday to Friday from 3 – 5 p.m. Not near a radio? Listen live online at the station’s website.

18 hours ago

Mercedes-Benz unveils the ‘S-Class of SUVs’ to be built in Alabama

Mercedes-Benz is turning heads in the Big Apple and among the world’s automotive press today with the unveiling of its new full-size SUV to be built in Alabama.

The automaker unveiled the 2020 GLS at the New York International Auto Show. Calling it “the S-Class of SUVs,” Mercedes is signaling this is the new standard-bearer for luxury SUVs in its product line.

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“The new GLS is the S-Class of premium SUVs,” said Ola Källenius, member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG responsible for corporate research and Mercedes-Benz Cars development. “It embodies luxury, confidence and intelligence like almost no other vehicle.”

Mercedes will produce the six-cylinder GLS450 and the eight-cylinder GLS 580 at its plant in Tuscaloosa. The latter will come with a hybrid electric and gas V8 engine featuring Mercedes’ EQ Boost technology with a 48-volt onboard electrical system.

Among the other highlights:

  • MBUX infotainment system allows for easy control from the driver’s seat and two 12.3-inch displays provide vehicle control information. An optional Interior Assist function responds to hand gestures and other movements. An artificial intelligence function allows for the Interior Assist to learn and anticipate a driver’s habits.
  • Executive Rear Seat Package has a separate tablet for controlling all the MBUX comfort and entertainment functions from the rear seats.
  • Electrically adjustable seats throughout are standard, as is the Easy-Entry function, which makes it easier to get into and out of the third-row seats.
  • Simple folding-down of all rear seats at the push of a button.
  • Choice of either three-seat rear bench seat or two luxury individual seats with armrests in the second row.
  • Two fully fledged seats in the third row (for people up to 6 feet 4 inches tall).
  • Heated seats and separate USB charging ports for the third row.
  • Five-zone automatic climate control available (standard on GLS 580).
  • A new car wash function that folds in exterior mirrors, closes windows and sunroof, suppresses the rain sensor on the windshield wipers, switches climate control to air-recirculation mode and activates 360-degree camera to assist in entering the carwash.
  • E-Active Body Control suspension works with the newly developed Airmatic air suspension to individually control spring and damping forces at each wheel for a smoother and safer ride.

Driver-assistance safety features such as Distronic to anticipate traffic jams and slow highway speeds automatically and Active Stop-and-Go Assist for driving in heavy traffic.“The GLS combines modern luxury with the character of an off-roader,” said Gorden Wagener, chief design officer at Daimler AG. “Powerful highlights of the off-road design idiom combined with an elegance reminiscent of a classic luxury sedan. The interior is a synthesis of modern, luxurious aesthetics, hallmark SUV practicality and digital high-tech. In our view, the new GLS therefore offers the best of all these worlds.”

Mercedes will begin producing the new GLS at its Tuscaloosa County plant later this year and the vehicles will be in dealers’ showrooms by year’s end.

Mercedes-Benz unveils the new GLS to be built in Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)