Onboard the AEP Mariner:

We are not alone on this stretch of the Ohio River in Appalachia. Winter has, for the most part, kept recreational boaters and jet-ski riders indoors. But barge traffic is not diminished by the cold and snow.

In fact, when the temperatures plunge, the fuel appetite of coal-burning power plants increases along with electricity demand from millions of homes.
Capt. Dale Wallace points out towboats with their barges riding low and high, fully loaded or just emptied. These are sister ships of the Mariner, among the largest on the river. It is river custom for the captains of the boats to stand and wave when they pass.

Always, Wallace comments on the appearance of the towboats: white paint neatly trimmed in red and blue, clean lines, cleared decks kept tidy. But the boats exude the beauty of raw power, like Clydesdale workhorses of the river. They aren’t racers. That’s not why they were built.

AEP River Operations is one of the major carriers on the eastern inland waterways. With 3,000 barges and more than 80 towboats, the company last year transported in excess of 73 million tons of cargo – and not just coal.

Other barging companies also work on the nation’s river system. It’s a network of commerce for transporting fuel, metal, aggregate, minerals, grain and other agricultural products -- even rockets. Boeing’s Delta IV heavy lift rocket is carefully transported from its Tennessee River assembly facility to the Gulf of Mexico on a specially designed carrier.

Anything in bulk or too large for conventional land shipping might wind up on a river barge.

One of AEP Mariner’s fully loaded barges can carry 1,500 tons of bulk dry material, 52,500 bushels of corn or 453,600 gallons of liquid. Compare this to railroad shipping capacity: 100 tons of dry material on a jumbo hopper car; 3,500 bushels; or 30,240 gallons.

“The choo-choos don’t have nothing on us,” declares Capt. Wallace after reeling off his towboat’s capabilities. In addition, modern towboats of Mariner’s class are extremely fuel-efficient. One 15-barge tow like ours has the equivalent shipping capacity of 870 large semi-trucks.

Mariner carries coal, of course, bound for a West Virginia power plant. We loaded at Powhatan Point and headed downriver, past numerous coal-burning units where barges come-and-go with daily regularity to keep the fuel source stocked. Smaller towboats – some with room for only a three-man crew, others half the size of Mariner – scurry like water striders in the shadows of cooling towers.

Shipping coal is the lifeblood of river transport in this part of the country. Working the boats is a way of life for many men and women. Like miners and power plant employees, they worry about the future. Regulations and legislation to limit or eliminate coal from the nation’s energy portfolio could cripple river commerce and put them out of work.

“People just don’t realize that all of this could go away,” says First Mate Sean Meadows, shouldering a steel bar with which he has been checking the cable attachments.

In fact, it has already started. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations have launched a chain reaction of power plant closings. With every unit shutdown, less coal is needed in the U.S. But, coal exports are at record levels. China, India and even Europe (where the glaring weakness of renewable energy intermittency has been revealed) have developed an insatiable appetite for coal.

First Mate Meadows slowly shakes his head and spits. It doesn’t make sense.

What happens on the river doesn’t necessarily stay here. The economic impact of shuttered power plants on the nation’s waterways will be felt far beyond the towns and cities clustered on the shores.

■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.