A major artery for Alabama’s coal exports – the Demopolis lock on the Black Warrior River – remains closed indefinitely after a concrete sill failure last week. This disruption throws a wrench into the supply chain, forcing shippers to scramble for alternative routes and raising concerns about potential impacts on export shipments in the near future.
While current impacts seem minimal, with stockpiles at the McDuffie Coal Terminal in Mobile temporarily buffering the blow, the long-term outlook remains hazy. Estimates for repair duration vary wildly, ranging from a month to up to half a year, leaving shippers in a state of limbo.
The Demopolis lock, nearing 70 years old, joins a growing list of aging infrastructure across the U.S. inland waterway system, highlighting the vulnerability of this crucial transportation network.
For the three major coal exporters in Mobile – Warrior Met Coal, Peabody, and ACNR/Javelin – navigating this disruption requires immediate action:
- Warrior Met Coal: Pushing rail shipments to the max, leveraging their CSX rail options alongside limited remaining barge capacity.
- Peabody: Taking the long way around, rerouting Shoal Creek coal via the Ohio River, New Orleans, and then across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway back to Mobile.
- ACNR/Javelin: Oak Grove coal, already enjoying a production boom, utilizes existing barging capacity due to its limited reliance on the Demopolis lock.
Despite these workarounds, added costs and logistical headaches are inevitable. Towing companies lament the “long way around,” hinting at potential delays and price hikes.
For now, outward appearances at the McDuffie terminal remain calm, with all three berths actively loading and no ships waiting offshore. However, this could be a temporary bubble, with the true impact of the closure likely to surface as stockpiles dwindle and repair timelines solidify.
The 2023 surge in Alabama’s coal exports, from 7 million tonnes to 10 million tonnes, hangs in the balance. The US Army Corps of Engineers, actively posting updates on their website, is under pressure to deliver a swift resolution to prevent this temporary hiccup from morphing into a long-term setback for the state’s vital coal export industry.