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

12 mins ago

Alabama Wildlife Federation continues mission of conservation and stewardship

For nearly a century, the Alabama Wildlife Federation has been on the front lines of promoting environmental stewardship, wildlife and natural resource conservation across the state. The federation’s important work includes educational outreach that has informed generations of Alabamians about the state’s natural beauty and incredible biodiversity. It is why the Alabama Power Foundation supports the federation.

“Our priority is to deliver programs and projects that promote conservation of Alabama’s world-class outdoor resources,” said federation Executive Director Tim Gothard. “We appreciate the Alabama Power Foundation and our partners for supporting our efforts to educate and build the type of projects that will enhance the quality of life for future generations.”

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Alabama Power Foundation supports the work of the Alabama Wildlife Federation from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The federation has taken the lead on a number of significant, ecologically focused projects in recent years. Last year, it teamed with Alabama Power to deploy an offshore, artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico near Dauphin Island, using repurposed tanks from the company’s Plant Barry in Mobile County. The reef will help expand fish habitat while supporting recreation and tourism.

“The Alabama Wildlife Federation continues to be a leader in stewardship and conservation,” said Tequila Smith, president of the Alabama Power Foundation. “Their commitment to improving our communities through education, awareness and diverse projects that strengthen our natural environment helps responsibly grow our state.”

To learn more about the Alabama Wildlife Federation, visit alabamawildlife.org.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 hours ago

The Saddle Guy carries on a family tradition of saddle making in Alabama

Kevin Parrish is a craftsman by birthright. At the age of 13, his father took him into the family garage workshop and started relaying the ins and outs of leather working and saddle making.

“I remember I was watching Saturday morning cartoons and he came and said, ‘Come on, it’s time to go to work,’ and from that point on, some nights during the week and every Saturday I would work with him, kicking and screaming the whole way.”

Luckily, Parrish, who owns The Saddle Guy—a saddle making and repair shop in Baldwin County, Alabama—eventually developed a passion for the talent. After attending college for a couple of years at Auburn, he returned home to Montgomery to once again work in his father’s saddle shop. This time, though, something was different. “It just kind of clicked for me,” he remembers.

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Finally seeing a future in saddle making, Parrish spearheaded an expansion of his father’s homegrown business, renting a space in the Montgomery stockyards and slowly growing the business for the next three years. When his father passed away in 1999, he held on for a few years before closing down the shop and moving to Memphis to work at Tucker Saddlery. A short time later, Tucker Saddlery was bought by Circle Y out of Texas, and Parrish moved west.

“It was kind of like saddle college,” Parrish says. “I got to learn a lot about making techniques and work with a bunch of talented saddle makers and designers.”

When Parrish decided it was time to move home, the natural thing to do was reopen shop. He repeated history by first operating out of his garage. Once business picked up, her rented a space. In 2017, Parrish moved his business to Robertsdale, where he resides today.

There, Parrish and his team of five focus on three main areas of business: saddle making, saddle repair, and creating horse tack like bridles and breast straps. Over the years, business has steadily grown. Last year, the team produced 147 saddles, the year before it was 89, then 69, 33, and 13. This year, The Saddle Guy already has orders for 114 saddles from all over the country and expects to build around 224 total before December ends.

One of the Parrish’s main goals with The Saddle Guy is to uphold the integrity of craftsmanship his father created in their family name. He often gets saddles into the shop for repairs that he can tell his father worked on just by the quality of stitching. With every saddle or accessory his shop works on, Parrish says it’s not about perfection but rather about making something beautiful and durable out of the materials he has to work with.

“There’s just something about starting out with a table covered in material—hardware, a hide of leather, a piece of tree—and then taking all those components and fitting them together. It’s kind of like creating something out of nothing—or not nothing, but something complicated out of something simple.”

Thinking back on how he got to be “The Saddle Guy,” Parrish says, “It’s funny how things work out. I ended up following his footsteps and carrying on what he began, but it was never really intentional. So now we’re building a nice company that’s trying to keep that tradition, not only of my family but the tradition of saddle building and leather crafting, alive.”

(Courtesy of SoulGrown)

3 hours ago

Alabama softball wins 2021 SEC Tournament

The University of Alabama shut out top-seeded Florida on Saturday night to win the 2021 SEC Softball Tournament Championship at Rhoads Stadium.

The 4-0 victory secured the sixth tournament title in program history and its first since 2012. The Crimson Tide remain the only program to win an SEC Tournament on its home field, now having done so this year and its previous title.

The latest win was the Bama softball’s 44th victory in an SEC Tournament, tying LSU for the most of any team all-time. Alabama achieved its shut-out behind another masterful performance from pitcher Montana Fouts (22-3), who went the distance with 11 strikeouts. The complete-game shutout is the first since Tennessee’s Monica Abbott in 2006. Fouts was named the SEC Tournament MVP, striking out a tournament-record 39 batters over her three appearances.

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“Winning the tournament at home means everything after all the adversity we’ve faced and the injuries we’ve overcome this year,” she commented. “To us, this win signifies that anything is possible and that we can accomplish anything. It feels great to be a part of this university and for our team to contribute our own SEC championship, but we aren’t done yet and we have bigger dreams.”

In addition to Fouts, Bailey Hemphill, Alexis Mack and Taylor Clark earned SEC All-Tournament accolades.

Alabama, ranked No. 3 nationally, is now 45-7 on the season and awaits is postseason draw with the NCAA Tournament selection show Sunday at 8:00 p.m. CT on ESPN2.

“The SEC was tough this year,” stated head coach Patrick Murphy. “I think everyone will realize just how great the SEC and the level of talent is when the All-American list gets released in a few weeks. There are so many great athletes throughout the SEC and in softball, specifically. I think softball, if not number one, is the second-best sport in the SEC. The championship tradition and coaches here at Alabama are a great fraternity to be in. I heard from so many other coaches last night wishing us good luck. It is a difficult job and we wanted to do the same thing and add to the success of our other sports. That’s why I love being a spring sport, it gives me an opportunity to learn from the fall and winter coaches. This team had grit and resiliency and it’s been a fun group to coach.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 hours ago

ADOL Secretary Washington applauds Gov. Ivey for opting out of pandemic compensation programs; Credits her for brisk recovery

Earlier this week, Gov. Kay Ivey announced the state would end its participation in federal pandemic employment compensation programs effective June 19, 2021.

The announcement was welcomed by Alabama business owners who have been grappling with labor shortages, which some blame on the generous federal benefits doled out in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During an appearance on Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” on FM Talk 106.5, Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington applauded Ivey for her decision not to continue those benefits.

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“On Monday, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Alabama would opt out of its participation in the federally funded pandemic unemployment compensation program,” Washington said. “There are four programs that make up those federal benefits. One program is called the federal pandemic unemployment compensation program, which provides an additional $300 weekly payment to recipients of unemployment compensation. The second program is the pandemic unemployment assistance program, which provides benefits for those who would not usually qualify — as such as self-employed, gig-economy workers and part-time workers. The third program pandemic emergency unemployment compensation program, which provides an additional extension of benefits once regular benefits have been exhausted. And then the final program is called the mixed-earner unemployment compensation program, which provides an additional $100 benefit for certain people with mixed incomes.”

“So, it was announced by Gov. Kay Ivey that we would be opting out of those programs,” he continued. “I certainly applaud the Governor for being the fourth governor out of 16 states to make this decision. Again, this decision was made in an effort to speed up economic recovery and get more Alabamians back to work.”

Washington also credited the Governor for the expeditious recovery, which has exceeded expectations and the pace of neighboring states.

“We’re really encouraged how our economy is turning in the right direction,” he said. “As mentioned, our state unemployment rate for March is at 3.8% compared to the national rate, which is 6.1%. And, in fact, Alabama has the lowest unemployment rate for two consecutive months — more than the neighboring southeastern states.”

“I attributed that to Governor Ivey and our administration,” Washington said. “I think she has a really good strong plan in terms of rallying everybody together and having everybody sing off of one accord in terms of what the opportunities are for people to wrap up our economy.”

@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.

4 hours ago

UAH alumna Dr. Kimberly Robinson named U.S. Space & Rocket Center CEO

Dr. Kimberly Robinson, an alumna of The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), part of The University of Alabama System, has been named Executive Director and CEO of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC). The hiring was announced by the Alabama Space Science Exhibition Commission, which oversees the operation of the center.

Dr. Robinson earned her M.S. and Ph.D. from UAH in Engineering Management and Systems Engineering and is a 31-year veteran of NASA. She is also the recipient of numerous NASA performance awards, including an Exceptional Achievement Medal and the Silver Snoopy.

She began her career at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in 1989 as a Project Engineer in the Propulsion Laboratory, became an astronaut trainer, served as an Executive Intern to the Center Director, was the Project Integration Manager for the Ares 1-X test flight, served as the Payload Mission Manager for Artemis 1 (the first integrated flight test of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion spacecraft) and most recently led Utilization for all Artemis missions for NASA HQs/Advanced Exploration Systems.

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Needless to say, the decision to make such a pivotal move at this time in her career is an intriguing one, fraught with change and challenges. “This was a major change to my life plan,” she says, smiling. “I had never planned to leave NASA prior to retirement and wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do while I was still building my NASA career. But now that it’s happened, it totally makes sense to me.”

One only needs to spend a few minutes with Dr. Robinson to feel the energy, enthusiasm and drive she is ready to throw at any obstacle in her way. “I know that I have a lot to learn, and I’m very upfront about that,” she says. “It goes beyond STEM education and space exploration. There are other roles that come along with this position: we run a museum, gift shop, restaurants and a large number of camp programs under Space Camp. Those areas are all new for me, and it’s fun for me to learn.”

Dr. Robinson’s background makes her particularly well-suited for her new role in ways beyond her technical qualifications. The alumna is fully versed in sharing the future of human space exploration with the public through her work in various NASA posts, such as SLS Strategic Communications Manager at MSFC.

“You have to be able to communicate, talk to the public and your team, explain where we are going, and how we will get there,” she says.

It doesn’t take complicated analysis to determine the source of many of the challenges she is facing. “The Center came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic,” notes Pat Ammons, the Senior Director of Communications at USSRC. But Dr. Robinson is walking into this job with her eyes wide open and a finely honed sense of how to help an organization surmount the difficulties it is facing to get back on track.

The most pressing need to be addressed would almost certainly be the financial impact brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.

“It would have been easier to step into this role had the Rocket Center been in a better financial situation rather than in a recovery mode after the pandemic,” the new CEO says. “But it wouldn’t have appealed to the part of me that enjoys the challenge. I had a mentor at NASA who said if you want to be valuable to an organization, you go to where they need you. You don’t go where you want to go or go for the best pay or the best title; you go where someone needs you, and do the best job that you can – that’s how you prove your value.”

Officially on the job since February 15, Dr. Robinson has hit the ground running, anxious to put her personal philosophy to work reshaping USSRC operations.

“At NASA I learned important lessons, like how to manage risk and how to make decisions with people’s lives depending on it. Here we are having to adjust and adapt and assess as the situations unfold. For example, we made a decision that we would only operate Space Camp at 50% capacity this summer to safely maintain distance and follow the health guidelines. We had to make that decision early on in order to stabilize our planning. To try to switch on a dime would not provide the quality experience that we want to give our visitors here.”

Dr. Robinson is quick to point out that one of the most important factors in supporting her vision for the Center is the people behind it all. “It’s mostly about team building. That’s what I enjoy, and what I did at NASA – developing a plan, executing the plan, keeping the team safe and secure, motivated and challenged. I believe I can do almost anything with the right motivated team, solve any problem, move any mountain. That’s how we landed on the Moon!”

One important part of leading is helping the team define and share a vision. To this end, Dr. Robinson is working with the Executive Team to develop a Strategic Plan for the Space & Rocket Center to outline the strategic goals of the Center for the next three to five years.

Originally from Birmingham, Dr. Robinson has always been fascinated by the space program. “I loved the space program, airplanes and space ships – but I never knew that was anything I could be a part of. That was for test pilots and German rocket scientists. It wasn’t until I received an award from the Society of Women Engineers presented to me by a female NASA astronaut that I learned it was something I could do too. It felt like the world opened up to me.”

In what has become a kind of lifelong modus operandi for the UAH alumna, it soon became evident, however, that she would have to knock down quite a few barriers to accomplish her goals.

“From that time on, I wanted to work at NASA, wanted to be an engineer and preferably an astronaut. I was a senior in high school, and I started interviewing everywhere for scholarships. I sometimes had people say, ‘You’re a woman, you won’t last as an engineer!’ One interviewer questioned why I deserved a scholarship, when I would probably just get married and leave school after the first year! Well, I stayed with it and now I have a real passion for encouraging women to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). I want them to know that if it interests you, don’t let anyone tell you you don’t belong.”

The choice to come to UAH to further her education was an easy one. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Robinson moved to Huntsville to work at NASA while pursuing an advanced degree at night. “I took one class at UAH, loved it, and said this is the place for me! It’s a wonderful university,” she says.

Now that she has had time to settle in, how does she feel about her first six weeks as head of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center?

The alumna grins. “I must look like a drowned rat, because it’s like drinking from a firehose! But just coming in the door, it was love at first sight. The team is wonderful, the mission is solid and appealing, and everything about it has felt right. It’s rewarding, fulfilling, challenging and exhausting, all at the same time.”

Lastly, Dr. Robinson fully understands the importance of helping this cherished Huntsville landmark thrive once more.

“It is a solemn responsibility that I take seriously. It is human nature to explore the unknown and push the boundaries, and space exploration is one way we have done that to a magnificent degree. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center showcases those human achievements that have expanded technologies, opened new frontiers and discovered new worlds. The story itself is the compelling narrative, and we’re here to make sure it shines in a way that connects to each visitor who walks in the door.”

(Courtesy of The University of Alabama in Huntsville)