SIOUX CITY | After an 11-year dry spell, the Missouri River finally brought a shipping barge into Sioux City on Wednesday.
The barge was contracted by CF Industries to haul heavy equipment to its expanding Port Neal complex. It's the first craft of its kind to ship to the Sioux City area since 2003.
As part of the plant's $1.7 billion expansion, CF needs to bring in equipment that's too massive to be transported by road or rail.
"It's really the only mode of transportation we could use in this case," said Kim Mathers, a CF spokeswoman. "It amounts to three different items — plant compressors and a plant turbine."
Assembled in Japan, the equipment left for the U.S. through the port of Hiroshima. It first arrived in Houston, getting shipped up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, and on Monday up the Missouri to Port Neal.
CF earlier this year built a dock and a heavy-duty road to transport the equipment from the river to the construction site, to the north of its existing plant.
Mathers said the machinery would be used in the production of ammonia, a key ingredient of the plant's nitrogen-based fertilizer products.
Capt. Bill Beacum — a veteran towboat operator on the Missouri River with over 55 years of experience — said the decision to ship via barge is a wise one.
"The biggest thing with regard to this operation here is that you can prefab a lot of this equipment at a factory instead of assembling it at the site," Beacum said.
"If you were to try and assemble all of this stuff down there at Sergeant Bluff near the river bottom, as heavy as it is, it would be hard to get an accurate piece when you got done," he added.
It may be an understatement to just call the CF equipment heavy.
"The average weight is a quarter of a million pounds," Mathers said. "Each is in its own crate, and those crates are 30 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet."
Mathers said the equipment had to be transferred to shore with the help of two cranes and a heavy equipment transporter. A second barge was on site to hold the watercraft in position while the goods were moved.
Years ago, a shipment like this in Sioux City wouldn't have attracted much attention. From 1995 to 1999, Beacum estimates that a hundred barges were brought to town each year, some bearing massive loads.
From 1988 to 2007, however, a string of droughts contributed to a drop in the river's water level, making it difficult to navigate.
During the same period, environmental groups successfully fought the Army Corps of Engineers to release less water from its reservoirs into the river in order to protect native wildlife.
Beacum said he's hopeful that this shipment could signal a renewal of barge traffic in Sioux City.
"I think there's going to be a place for the barge lines again," he said. "I'm optimistic because of the railroads — because of the intrusion of the trains hauling the fracked oil from the Dakotas down here. Everything is getting saturated with traffic — Interstate 70, Interstate 80.
"The only way you can resolve some of this saturation is to get the barges running again," he added.
Barbara Sloniker, executive vice president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce, said Sioux City could get a lot of use out of barges.
"Commerce on the river is important, and I think barge traffic complements the air, rail and highway transportation we currently use in Sioux City," Sloniker said. "This river town exists because of the river, so we're always supportive of navigation on the Missouri River."
For its part, CF plans to order 10-15 more barge shipments to the Port Neal site over the next several months.