Lawmaker calls for clearer Mississippi River transit standards

    While local industry is eagerly waiting for the New Orleans Baton Rouge Steamboat Pilots Association to lift its nearly yearlong ban on nighttime Mississippi River shipments, some state lawmakers are joining the discussion with concerns about the lack of a regulatory standard for ship movements going forward.

    That’s why state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, requested holding a Joint Commerce Committee hearing before the 2020 regular session begins, with plans to tackle the matter. Around 5 p.m. Thursday evening, the issue was also added to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget Meeting agenda as a discussion item at its Friday meeting, scheduled for 9:30 a.m.

    “This is urgent. Louisiana isn’t in good enough financial shape to shut down our commerce arbitrarily if the river is deemed safe by state authorities,” says White, noting the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Pilots Association deem the river safe. “NOBRA is pushing us to get involved. Legislation will be filed, and we’ll work with industry to see what we need to do.”

    White’s request comes just days after a truce appeared to be reached between NOBRA and Baton Rouge area industry leaders, who say the restrictions hurt commerce throughout the region.

    Forming the backbone of their concerns is what they call a pattern of inconsistency with regard to NOBRA’s history of imposing daylight-only restrictions. There aren’t any current standards for what river levels need to reach in order for restrictions to go into effect, or when those restrictions would be lifted once the river falls below that level. In the past decade, the daytime restrictions have been enacted three times—once in 2011, and twice in 2019—without a streamlined process.

    No legislation has been drafted yet, with White saying he hopes NOBRA will soon establish a clear-cut standard. However, if necessary, White says he will author a bill addressing the issue.

    Capt. Robert Heitmeier, who chairs the NOBRA Board of Examiners, says the board is working toward establishing such a standard, having recently completed a six-month study that will help the board determine the best regulatory infrastructure to put in place, with safety remaining the top priority. He says the board could move away from river levels as a measure of safety and instead look at river speeds, which he says have escalated dramatically in the past 30 years.

    “We’re working as fast as we can,” Heitmeier says. “It’s not a black-and-white thing. It takes time to make things consistent.”

    While he wasn’t aware of any potential legislative action, Heitmeier says White’s call for a streamlined process “sounds like what the board is trying to do.”

    Still, groups like the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association and the Louisiana Chemical Association say the fact that NOBRA was able to impose the restrictions for 10 consecutive months also raises questions. 

    “We understand safety is of the utmost importance, but is NOBRA qualified to make that analysis?” says Tyler Gray, LMOGA president. “It seems like the Coast Guard would be able to. Do we have the right regulatory authority in place?”

    His sentiments are echoed by LCA President Greg Bowser, who further believes “some independent group needs to look at what’s regulated.”

    Heitmeier counters that the three-member, governor-appointed NOBRA Board of Examiners are maritime industry experts with decades of experience, saying “no one knows this river better than us.” He says NOBRA is still aiming to lift the ban by the end of the week, hoping heavy rainfall doesn’t further delay plans.

    “We’re holding our breath and crossing our fingers,” Heitmeier says. 

    Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include that, after Daily Report PM was published, the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget added the discussion item to their Friday meeting agenda.

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