3 years 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

32 mins ago

State Sen. Albritton: ‘I don’t think we have the time to sit back and wait’ on prison, gaming

With the fourth year of this quadrennium ahead in 2022, several high-profile key matters remain unresolved.

Historically, the Alabama Legislature has avoided high-profile matters in those years because they are also election years for the body’s members. That’s not an excuse, according to State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore).

During an interview with Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” Albritton, the chairman of the Senate General Fund Committee, said there was no time to wait on prisons and gaming, two of the matters that continue to remain unresolved in state government.

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“Elections are a part of the process,” he said. “They are the not the process. They are a part of the process. You’ve still got to do your job no matter what comes up — whether it’s COVID, whether you’re broke, whether you got money, or whether there are elections are not. That doesn’t change the issues. That doesn’t change the facts. It doesn’t change the responsibility of moving forward with the things the state has to get done. I don’t think we have the time to sit back and wait on prison matters. I don’t think we have the time to sit back and wait on gaining control of gaming in Alabama.”

“There are several issues like that — yeah, they’re controversial,” Albritton added. “Everything in politics is controversial. We’ve just got to buckle down and do the job we’ve been told to do and that we were brought there to do, and that is pass legislation that will advance the state and advance the people of the state economically. That is what we should  be accomplishing.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

54 mins ago

UAB Hospital’s longest-tenured COVID-19 patient goes home

Ricky Hamm is no stranger to UAB Hospital. A medevac helicopter pilot, he has been flying ill and injured patients to UAB for 17 years. He was the first medevac pilot to touch down on the landing pad of UAB’s North Pavilion when it opened in 2004. On Jan. 10, 2021, he found himself at the North Pavilion again, but this time as a patient.

COVID-19 patient. It would be 187 days before he would go home.

Hamm is not sure how he contracted the virus. Five co-workers were COVID-19-positive at the same time in January, so he may have picked it up at work.

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“We live in a rural area, and I always wore a mask and kept my distance when going to town,” Hamm said. “A bunch of us went to get the first dose of the Moderna vaccine, but I must have already had the virus.”

Hamm, a veteran who first flew medevac in the Army, began to feel sick Jan. 5. Five days later, he was in UAB Hospital with severe breathing issues. He was not a good candidate for a ventilator, an artificial breathing machine often used with COVID-19 patients. His physicians had to turn to ECMO.

ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, is a device that removes a patient’s blood, filters out the carbon dioxide and adds oxygen. The blood is then pumped back into the body. In effect, the machine takes over the roles of the heart and lungs.

“ECMO is a complicated, complex procedure,” said Dr. Keith Wille, professor in UAB’s Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and medical director of the adult ECMO program. “It’s invasive and not much fun for the patient. In this case, it saved his life. But trust me – you do not want to go on ECMO.”

Hamm was on ECMO for 147 days. He has the dubious distinction of being UAB’s longest-tenured COVID-19 patient, at 187 days. He will still be on supplemental oxygen after discharge, and he will use an extra-strength CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine at night for a while to help his breathing. He has suffered profound hearing loss, which his wife, Shannon, a speech pathologist, hopes may resolve over time. His bout with COVID-19 was severe.

“He had a lot of support from family and friends,” said Shannon. “We were not sure how it was going to go at first. He was basically out of it for about four months. Once he woke up and joined the fight, things got a lot better. Then we knew he was going to make it.”

On July 16, Hamm’s family, friends in the emergency medical services community and co-workers celebrated his discharge from UAB, complete with a blue-light escort from Jefferson County and other area sheriff’s departments.

Hamm, speaking to members of the media outside the hospital, offered his support for vaccination.

“I believe in the vaccine,” he said. “I believe I already had the virus before I got the vaccine, before it could work to protect me. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”

Hamm’s wife said they were halfway through construction of a house when Hamm got sick. The contractors have now finished, and Hamm got his first look at the house as the caravan bringing him home from the hospital pulled up.

“We built it to live in the rest of our lives,” he said. “Built ramps and wide doorways. No stairs. It was for when we grew old. I never expected to need handicap access quite this soon.”

Hamm is 50 years old. They did not celebrate his birthday much in 2020 due to the pandemic. They will celebrate this time. He came home from the hospital – after more than seven months – the day before his 51st birthday.

This story originally appeared on the UAB News website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 hours ago

State Rep. Tracy Estes announces reelection campaign

State Rep. Tracy Estes (R-Winfield) has announced his reelection bid to the Alabama House of Representatives, serving District 17.

Estes, a first-term lawmaker, serves on the Education Policy, Public and Homeland Security, and Children and Senior Advocacy Committees.

“Serving my district in Montgomery has proven to be one of the greatest honors in my life,’’ said Estes. “More importantly, serving in this capacity has given me the opportunity to represent the people of Northwest Alabama while giving them a voice in state government. With a second term in office, I am committed to honoring the promise I made the residents of Lamar, Marion and Winston counties on the campaign trail in 2018 – to be hard working, transparent and accessible. Without hesitation, I believe I have honored my word.’’

In the earliest stages of the global coronavirus pandemic, Estes said in a release he was at the forefront in efforts to bring “much-needed federal financial assistance” to House District 17.

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The release cited his work with hospitals in Winfield, Hamilton and Haleyville to secure more than $15 million in financial aid. The first-term lawmaker noted the assistance his office provided to his constituents in obtaining jobless benefits.

Estes helped lead the legislature in the lower chamber to pass Aniah’s Law, which if passed through statewide ballot measure, would expand judicial authority to deny bail to those accused of committing violent crimes. The legislation was spearheaded by State Rep. Chip Brown (R-Hollinger’s Island).

The press release stated that Estes has managed to secure funding for eight highway projects for his district, totaling more than $4 million.

He has been an ardent supporter of public education and has sponsored numerous legislation relating to education since assuming office, earning him recognition from the Alabama Association of School Boards and the School Superintendents of Alabama.

Estes serves as a deacon at Winfield First Baptist Church and sings lead in a Southern gospel quartet.

In closing, Estes offered a direct plea for reelection to voters of House District 17.

“I believe the voters in this district still honor and respect hard work,” said Estes. “I can honestly say I have poured all of my energy into working hard on your behalf over the last few years while also being transparent and accessible to everyone in the district regardless of age, gender, community or economic background. I worked for everyone in this district and have considered it an honor to do so.”

Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News

5 hours ago

Britt: Border crisis ‘a result of the weakness of the Biden administration’

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Katie Britt appeared Thursday on News Talk 93.1’s “Dan Morris Show,” where she was interviewed by guest host Apryl Marie Fogel.

During the interview, she was asked by Fogel whether some of the recent turmoil overseas and at the border was attributable to the transition in the executive branch.

“There is no doubt that this is a result of the weakness of the Biden administration,” Britt outlined. “You mentioned the border — it is a total disaster. If you look at the number of people coming over the border, both in May and June we hit 20-year highs. President Trump placed policies and enacted policies that showed strength and got the border under control. I mean, the first thing that we need to do is seal and secure the border. If you look at the safety and security of our nation, but also the humanitarian crisis that is occurring there. We are seeing so many drugs being trafficked over the border. They said they are catching over 3,000 pounds a day, but Apryl Marie, what China is sending over in fentanyl to Mexico, to then come over our border, they said could kill every American four times over.”

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“And every bit of this, it’s interesting, when Vice President Harris said, ‘Oh, I’m going go to the border to see what the issue is,’ which obviously took her, how many days did it take her? – How many months? It was absurd. But I thought, ‘You don’t need to go down there to see (the problem), just look in the mirror.’ It’s you, it’s your administration, the Biden administration’s policies. It’s the weakness that you’re showing,” Britt concluded. “We’ve got to put back Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy. We’ve also got to make sure that, as President Trump did, when people came over the border, they knew that they weren’t going to be placed on our welfare system. Those types of policies, that type of strength, that deters people from coming. Same thing in Cuba. Same thing in Israel. I mean, they see weakness in the Biden Administration, and they see that the Democrats are starting to undermine that relationship, and they are taking advantage of it. Make no mistake: this is why we have to have strength in D.C. and in the White House. We must have strength in the Senate, and we must have strength in the House.”

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

6 hours ago

A new-look Alabama Crimson Tide, the same old Nick Saban

Nick Saban knows you want to know what he thinks. About the prospect of COVID-19 disrupting another college football season. Name, image and likeness rights for college athletes. The revolving door on the transfer portal thanks to the one-time free transfer rule.

Winning a poll-era record seven national championships, six of the past 12, including the 2020 title, has earned the Alabama football coach a bully pulpit. It’s also earned him the right to admit he knows what he doesn’t know.

“I know there’s a lot of interest in a lot of those things,” Saban said Wednesday at SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel. “I almost feel that anything that I say will probably be wrong because there’s no precedent for the consequences that some of the things that we are creating, whether they’re good opportunities, even if they’re good opportunities, there’s no precedent for the consequences that some of these things are going to create, whether they’re good or bad.”

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Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban talks NIL, vacationing, sustaining success and a past SEC Media Days memory from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The more college football changes, the more Saban and Alabama adapt to those changes and keep winning. They went undefeated to capture the 2020 national championship despite COVID disruptions such as Saban himself missing the Iron Bowl because he tested positive for the virus, and two games being rescheduled.

Saban explained how Alabama has handled the subject of vaccinations for the disease with its players heading into this season. He broke it down into “a personal decision” for each player and “a competitive decision” on how that choice could affect the team.

How has that approach worked to date?

“I think that we’re pretty close to 90 percent maybe of our players who have gotten the vaccine,” Saban said, “and I’m hopeful that more players make that decision – but it is their decision.”

Speaking a day earlier at a Texas high school coaching convention, Saban weighed in on the newest phenomenon affecting college athletics, NIL rights. He dropped a nugget that Alabama’s heir apparent at quarterback, sophomore Bryce Young, has earned almost a million dollars in endorsements. Saban didn’t expound on Young’s earning power Wednesday but applauded the opportunity for players to make money.

He also questioned the impact that a disparity in NIL earnings could have on the roster “because it’s not going to be equal, and everything that we’ve done in college athletics in the past has always been equal. Everybody’s had an equal scholarship, equal opportunity.”

“Now that’s probably not going to be the case. Some positions, some players will have more opportunities than others. And how that’s going to impact your team, our team, the players on the team, I really can’t answer because we don’t have any precedent for it.

“I know that we’re doing the best we can to try to get our players to understand the circumstance they’re in, the opportunity they have, and how those opportunities are not going to be equal for everybody, and it will be important for our team’s success that people are not looking over their shoulder at what somebody else does or doesn’t do.”

What Alabama does in trying to compete for another championship without 10 NFL draft picks from last year’s team, six of whom were selected in the first round, including Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, will reflect the program’s ability to adapt to the new era of college football “free agency.” Tennessee transfer linebacker Henry To’oTo’o, a potential “quarterback-type guy on defense” in Saban’s words, is one of the newcomers expected to make an immediate impact on a team that will start the season in a much different place than last season.

With eight new starters on offense and a new offensive coordinator and play-caller in former NFL head coach Bill O’Brien, the experience this time around is on defense. Just the same, Saban said, after setting school records last season with 48.5 points and 541.6 yards a game, “we’re not changing offenses.”

“We’ve got a good offense,” he said. “We’ve got a good system. We’ve got a good philosophy. Bill has certainly added to that in a positive way, and we’ll probably continue to make some changes. But from a terminology standpoint, from a player standpoint in our building, our offense was very, very productive, and we want to continue to run the same type of offense and feature the players that we have who are playmakers who can make plays, and I think Bill will do a good job of that.”

So as a new season awaits, Saban and Alabama find themselves in a familiar place in a new world, trying to defend a national championship with a new cast of featured players and assistant coaches. Saban called it “the penalty for success.”

“The challenge is you’ve got to rebuild with a lot of new players who will be younger, have new roles, less experience, and how do they respond to these new roles? That’s why rebuilding is a tremendous challenge,” Saban said. “That’s why it’s very difficult to repeat.”

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban speaks at SEC Media Days 2021 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Saban, who has won back-to-back national championships just once in 2011 and 2012, is heading into his 15th season at Alabama, his 20th in the SEC, including his five years at LSU. The SEC coach next in line in seniority is Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, who’s entering his ninth year. Eight of the league’s head coaches are in their first or second year.

Someone asked Saban the secret to his longevity.

“I think that’s simple,” he said. “You’ve got to win.”

Mission accomplished. Again and again and again.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)