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Struggle for federal dredging money continues in upstate cities

Kate O'Connell / WXXI

Shipping lanes and ports along the Great Lakes are big contributors to the economies of upstate cities.  Federal funding to remove sediment and keep these shipping lanes open is available, but funds are limited and some of the smaller ports struggle to secure the money to dredge shipping channels on a yearly basis.

And, difficulty freeing federal funds has led one company to take matters into their own hands in western New York.

For more than two-and-a-half years the Essroc cement company has been unable to bring their product into the port of Rochester in bulk, due to a buildup of sediment that’s prevented their cargo ship from docking.

That changed recently with the return of the Stephen B. Roman cargo freighter. Its arrival marked the reopening of the channel, funded by a $1.5 million public-private partnership that saw more than 200,000 cubic yards of sediment dredged from the Genesee River. That’s equivalent to roughly 10,000 truckloads.

Captain Stephen Murch, senior manager of marine logistics at Essroc, says it’s important for businesses across the upstate region to keep the waterways open.                                                                                                 

“The marine mode of transportation is the most cost effective mode, and to be able to bring cement in in bulk as we do here in large amounts, keeps the cost a very competitive cost for cement for all the projects that happen within Rochester and the region as well,” Murch says.

He says although the company doesn’t want to disclose financial losses, the inability to ship their product into western New York in bulk was costly.

“Several years ago we came for a fresh trip in and it had just silted in beyond the level that we were able to make the trip in so we had to move to an emergency situation to bring our other smaller vessel into service to work on just this port.”

Under the partnership with the City of Rochester and the Army Corp of Engineers, Essroc partly funded the deepening of the channel. Murch says it’s the first time the company has had to finance dredging in order to keep their business running normally, but it may not be the last time.

Mike Asquith, of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Dredging Project Manager in western New York, says the economic benefits of dredging equate to tens of millions of dollars every year, but freeing up federal funding can be an issue.

“It’s a process we go through every single year on the Great Lakes. The federal government has a limited amount of funds that they can use for dredging and we try to go through a process and make sure the country gets the biggest bang for its buck,” he said.

Asquith says small tonnage ports like Rochester’s often miss out on funding which tends to be funneled towards bigger ports.

Rep. Louise Slaughter announced in May that she’s secured funding for a new round of dredging in Rochester in 2014, and Essroc’s Stephen Murch says they hope the federal government will pick up the tab from now on.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail