1 year 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

6 mins ago

Huntsville-managed SLS program gets major boost; 2024 Moon mission closer to realization

NASA on Wednesday announced that it has officially taken the next steps toward the mission that will carry the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024.

The agency is now committing to build Space Launch System (SLS) rocket core stages to support as many as 10 Artemis missions.

To accomplish this, NASA intends to work with Boeing, the current lead contractor for the core stages of the rockets that will fly on the first two Artemis missions, for the production of SLS rockets through the next decade.

The SLS program is managed out of Marshall Space Flight Center for NASA, while Boeing’s Huntsville-based Space and Launch division manages the company’s SLS work. SLS is the most powerful rocket in world history and the only rocket that can send the Orion spacecraft, astronauts and supplies to the Moon in a single mission.

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“We greatly appreciate the confidence NASA has placed in Boeing to deliver this deep space rocket and their endorsement of our team’s approach to meeting this unprecedented technological and manufacturing challenge in support of NASA’s Artemis program,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s Space and Launch division, stated.

Tuesday’s announcement confirmed that NASA has provided initial funding and authorization to Boeing to begin work toward the production of the third core stage and to order targeted long-lead materials and cost-efficient bulk purchases to support future builds of core stages.

This action allows Boeing to manufacture the third core stage in time for the 2024 mission, Artemis III, while NASA and Boeing work on negotiations to finalize the details of the full contract within the next year. The full contract is expected to support up to ten core stages and up to eight Exploration Upper Stages (EUS).

“It is urgent that we meet the President’s goal to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024, and SLS is the only rocket that can help us meet that challenge,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

“These initial steps allow NASA to start building the core stage that will launch the next astronauts to set foot on the lunar surface and build the powerful exploration upper stage that will expand the possibilities for Artemis missions by sending hardware and cargo along with humans or even heavier cargo needed to explore the Moon or Mars,” he added.

The core stage is the center part of the rocket that contains the two giant liquid fuel tanks. Towering 212 feet with a diameter of 27.6 feet, it will store cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and all the systems that will feed the stage’s four RS-25 engines. It also houses the flight computers and much of the avionics needed to control the rocket’s flight.

(NASA/MSFC)

Boeing’s current contract includes the SLS core stages for the Artemis I and Artemis II missions and the first EUS, as well as structural test articles and the core stage pathfinder.

The imminent new contract is expected to realize substantial savings compared to the production costs of core stages built during the design, development, test and evaluation phase by applying lessons learned during first-time builds and gaining efficiencies through bulk purchases.

“NASA is committed to establishing a sustainable presence at the Moon, and this action enables NASA to continue Space Launch System core stage production in support of that effort to help bring back new knowledge and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars,” John Honeycutt, SLS program manager at Marshall, explained.

“SLS is the only rocket powerful enough to send Orion, astronauts and supplies to the Moon on a single mission, and no other rocket in production today can send as much cargo to deep space as the Space Launch System rocket,” he concluded.

Wednesday’s news was met with a celebratory tweet by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), a champion for space exploration.

For the first three Artemis missions, the SLS rocket will use an interim cryogenic propulsion stage to send the Orion spacecraft to the Moon. The rocket is designed to meet a variety of mission needs by evolving to carry greater mass and volume with a more powerful EUS. The EUS is an important part of Artemis infrastructure needed to send astronauts and large cargo together, or larger cargo-only shipments, to the Moon, Mars and deep space.

NASA plans on to use the first EUS on the Artemis IV mission, and additional core stages and upper stages will support either crewed Artemis missions, science missions or cargo missions.

“The exploration upper stage will truly open up the universe by providing even more lift capability to deep space,” Julie Bassler, the SLS Stages manager at Marshall, advised. “The exploration upper stage will provide the power to send more than 45 metric tons, or 99 thousand pounds, to lunar orbit.”

The SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft, Gateway and Human Landing System are part of NASA’s backbone for deep space exploration. Work is well underway on both the Artemis I and II rockets, with core stage assembly nearly complete at Michoud in New Orleans.

Soon, the stage will be shipped to NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where it will undergo Green Run testing, an integrated test of the entire new stage that culminates with the firing of all four RS-25 engines. Upon completion of the test, NASA’s Pegasus barge will take the core stage to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it will be integrated with other parts of the rocket and Orion for Artemis I. Boeing also has completed manufacturing most of the main core stage structures for Artemis II.

“Together with a nationwide network of engaged and innovative suppliers we will deliver the first core stage to NASA this year for Artemis I,” Boeing’s Chilton concluded. “This team is already implementing lessons learned and innovative practices from the first build to produce a second core stage more efficiently than the first. We are committed to continuous improvement as they execute on this new contract.”

North Alabama also will play a leading role in other components of Artemis, including with the lunar Gateway and the new Human Landing System. Historic contributions to America’s space prowess are being made by several private sector partners in the Yellowhammer State, such as United Launch Alliance (ULA), Boeing and Dynetics.

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

Episode 6: Interview with former Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna

Dale Jackson is joined former Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna to talk about how he went from the life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll to leading the music department of Calhoun Community College in Decatur.

Vrenna describes how his love of music took him all over the world, granted him the awards and adulations of millions, and how it made him a better teacher in 2019 in Alabama.

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Episode 30: Bye week recap, college football midterm

A rested DrunkAubie is back from the bye week ready to discuss South Carolina beating Georgia last week and the upcoming matchup with Arkansas.

In this episode, Rodrigo “Hot Rod” Blankenship goes to the eye doctor, Auburn Fans Anonymous and DA takes a college football midterm exam.

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13 hours ago

Black Alabamians should reject Doug Jones in 2020

Last September, just before midnight, Senator Doug Jones grabbed his phone, went on Twitter and in no more than 50 words, told the people of Alabama that he would be voting NO on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.

Immediately, I was overcome with shock and indignation. Yes, more often than not, Senator Jones toes the party line; he votes against President Trump’s positions 84% of the time.

Naively, I assumed that with so much at stake, this time would be different.

Surely, I thought, he would be reminded of Brian Banks, an African-American senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School who had just committed to UCLA before his career was destroyed by a false accusation of sexual assault.

Or maybe, the images of the nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape who collectively spent over 100 years in prison not far from where he grew up would cause him to demand, at the very least, a smidgen of evidence before casting blame.

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As he was pondering his decision, I was supremely certain he would hear the cries of Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley as she wept over the casket of her son, Emmett Till, who was abducted, brutally tormented, shot, folded in barbed wire and then dumped in the Tallahatchie River because he “whistled” at a white woman — a lie she recanted some 50 years later.

Surely, I thought, his years as a federal prosecutor, in which he routinely witnessed lives shattered over false accusations, might reignite his deep and profound respect for the sacred principle that, in our criminal justice system, one is innocent until proven guilty.

With his vote, Senator Jones endorsed a cultural movement which mandates that, even in the absence of evidentiary support, we must #BelieveAllWomen.

While seemingly well-intentioned, this categorical pledge should alarm Black folks in Alabama, as it stands to disproportionately affect us the most. Taking punitive action on the basis of accusation, and not evidence, is a philosophical regression that could awaken one of Jim Crow’s most destructive offspring: a society that values the voices spoken from white tongues over those from black ones.

The National Registry of Exonerations, in a 2017 report examining 1,900 exonerations over the past 30 years, determined that 47% of those exonerated were African-American, despite the fact that we make up only 13% of the U.S. population. In cases involving sexual assault, African-Americans constituted 22% of convictions, but 59% of exonerations. In other words, around half of the time, black men are wrongly convicted of sexual assault.

Realistically, if Kavanaugh is not afforded due process, despite being reared in some of America’s most privileged institutions, what chance do we have?

In a criminal justice system rife with inequalities, the presumption of innocence is often the only thing we can hope for. And Doug Jones’ philosophy — one that assumes guilt when accusations are made — is one that leads to the unjust imprisonment of men who look like me.

All survivors of sexual assault and rape deserve justice, just as the accused deserve one of America’s most potent protections: innocence until proven guilty. It is a cornerstone of American jurisprudence – one that separates us from brutal regimes across the globe and one that must not be relegated to a second-class status.

As election season is upon us and Doug Jones walks the streets of our neighborhoods and preaches to our congregations in the hopes of garnering our vote, remember that politics is more than just handshakes and speeches. Our votes, and the people they go to, have the power to turn ideas into reality.

Let’s vow to utilize that power to keep Jones and his destructive philosophy from creating more miscarriages of justice in our community.

Jalen Drummond is a native of Randolph County and alumnus of the University of Alabama

14 hours ago

Heaven to hell and back again: How faith, Nick Saban helped Tyrone Prothro get his life back

Three weeks. Just three weeks. That was the time between the greatest high of his life and the greatest low.

Today, 14 years later, the memories of two college football Saturdays please him, yet haunt him. From heaven to hell in a span of three weeks, and to this day, both places remain with him.

The greatest catch in the history of college football. A career-ending, gruesome injury just three weeks later: Tyrone Prothro is known worldwide for both, and the lessons he’s learned from the fall of 2005 have shaped the man that he has become.

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Man, was he speedy — a shifty offensive threat at Cleburne County High School, Prothro was listed at 5-foot-9-inches tall.

Most snickered when they saw his height listed as 5’9”, but it didn’t matter, because, in Heflin, Tyrone Protho was a giant — an unstoppable athlete who seemingly scored at will. And, a few years later when his signature football moment arrived on September 10, 2005, the then-Crimson Tide receiver was ready.

It was just before the half, and Bama quarterback Brodie Croyle was looking to send a message to Southern Miss as the home crowd smelled blood. Prothro smelled a big play, and boy, did he deliver.

As Croyle spotted a streaking Prothro down the field, Prothro spotted an opportunity. Up for the football Prothro went, collecting the football along with Southern Miss defensive back Jasper Faulk. As the pair tumbled to the turf, Prothro hung on as Faulk’s helmet was caught between the football and Prothro’s jersey. Tyrone squeezed the football like he had never squeezed a football before as he held onto the ball which was pinned against his opponent’s helmet.

In that moment, “The Catch” was born.

In the weeks that followed, Tyrone Prothro was not only the big man on campus, but rather the biggest story in America. Six months after The Catch, Twitter was born- –and oh, how that play would have gone viral if it had arrived a few months earlier. How big was that play? Prothro found himself in Hollywood the following July accepting the ESPY Award for “Best Play.” An ESPY for the kid from Heflin, Alabama? It was all so surreal.

October 1, 2005, brought to Tuscaloosa one of the biggest football games in recent memory. Three Saturdays after “The Catch,” Prothro was enjoying a performance for the ages. A first quarter 87-yard touchdown catch from Brodie Croyle? Why not? Prothro and crew led the Gators 7-0. Fast forward to the third quarter: Another Prothro TD catch from 16 yards and the Crimson Tide led 31-3. He believed that his life-changing season would continue.

Prothro’s life would indeed change, but it was not the change that he expected.

Late in the Florida game, Prothro went high into the air as he attempted to make another one of his circus catches. This time, as he landed awkwardly, his dream of playing in the NFL would be over. Prothro’s left leg snapped in half. A hush fell over the crowd as never before had Bama fans witnessed such horror, such sadness, such empathy. Through his pain, Prothro managed a thumbs up as he was carted off the field.

Yet just like that, football had left his life.

“Now what?” he asked himself. After all, Prothro had big dreams — but instead of preparing for the NFL Draft, Prothro found himself preparing for surgery.

And then another. And then another.

Prothro underwent a total of 12 surgeries, as he wasn’t concerned with playing football again, but rather walking again. And at the moment when Prothro felt as if all was lost in his life? In the midst of him questioning God?

More confusion arose, as that Alabama coaching carousel had his mind spinning: Dennis Franchione. Mike Price. Mike Shula. Joe Kines. Nick Saban. What in the world was happening in Tuscaloosa?

His football career was over — yet as his mind strained, his competitiveness kicked in: Tyrone Prothro continued working toward his degree.

The problem?

Focusing on his studies was not his strong suit. And as he looks back today, Prothro told the Huts And Nuts podcast that it was a man named Nick Saban who came to his rescue. Yes, the same coach for whom Prothro never played, the same coach who was forced to officially take Prothro off the Bama roster on August 3, 2007.

Said Prothro on the podcast, “My grades were falling and I was in the dumps. I had a meeting with Coach Saban and he told me that the best thing I could do was to get my degree. He then chewed me out in a second meeting and he helped me realize that it was the best thing I could do for myself.”

In August 2008, Tyrone Prothro graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in Human Environmental Sciences.

It’s been 14 years since Prothro felt elation, 14 years since he felt despair. Yet today, he is a happy camper.

At the time of this writing, Prothro and his wife, Sidnie, were expecting the arrival of daughter Laila — she will enter the world as brother London welcomes her with open arms.

After taking a few days off, Prothro will head back to work as an offensive assistant coach with the Jasper High School football team.

Prothro advised, “If I can help one of these kids through my story, I feel it’s why I’m here. I’m going to help as many kids as I can.”

And of his shattered dream of playing in the NFL?

“I was projected to be a first-round pick. I’m not one to sit back and dwell on what wasn’t. All I can do is move forward and work like the next man, taking care of my family.”

Years after feeling an ultimate high and a heartbreaking low, the Alabama football family feels for Tyrone Prothro, as Bama fans are proud of how one of their own has handled adversity.

Prothro’s football life may not have been completed, but thanks to family, faith and a drive possessed by few others, he is now content.

“You just have to take the bull by the horns and keep plugging along. It will be then that it will all pay off,” he explained

Wise words indeed from a “Hero of the Game” and a man who will never forget those three weeks in 2005.

Listen to the full interview:

Rick Karle is a 24-time Emmy winning broadcaster and a special sports contributor to Yellowhammer News. He is also the host of the Huts and Nuts podcast.