By Bobby Dower
[email protected]

The West Calcasieu Port expanded recently to serve the needs of barge companies that use the facility. Port director Lynn Hohensee talked with the American Press about the port, its tenants and its future.

West Calcasieu Port director

American Press: What and who does the West Calcasieu Port service?

Lynn Hohensee: The West Cal Port was created by in the ’60s by an act of the state Legislature. It is a small-water port or I should say a shallow-water port. It’s on the Intracoastal Waterway abouthalfway between New Orleans and Houston. It’s located two miles west between the interchange between the Calcasieu River waterway and the GIWW (Gulf Intracoastal Waterway). It’s just off Highway 27.

It’s a small port. It’s only 190 acres totally within its footprint. We are a port that is committed to marine services. We’re not a cargo port that brings in cargo or sends cargo out. We’re really dedicated to helping out other people in the marine community do their jobs better. And basically we support our tenants who do that.

We’re a public entity. We have a fi ve-member board. The board members are nominated by fi ve different organizations and we’re committed to help growing three things: jobs, tax revenue and infrastructure development, the capital investment into growing the economy in our community and we consider our community the Southwest Louisiana fi ve-parish area.

The port has fi ve tenants now. They have a variety of services that they provide to the marine community. Our oldest and largest tenant is Devall Towing. The Devall family has been in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes over a half-century. You talk about a true, beautiful family, multigenerational, that’s in the business. They are a perfect example of small entrepreneurship doing well.

Our other businesses include Orion Marine Group. In 2006, they actually purchased — they are out of Houston — they purchased F. Miller Construction. Now the total company is under Orion Marine Group. And they are in marine construction work. They have been at the port since August of 2009. They are wonderful tenants.

Then two summers ago, we brought in a company from over by Gonzales, Louisiana on the (Mississippi River. It’s called River Barge Works. They specialize in cleaning dry barges. These are barges that ship petroleum coke, scrap iron, grains, other non-liquid-type products. They have been on board for about two years and they lease space on our barge basin.

Then the other two tenants that we’ve got came on board since the first of the year. It’s the United States Environmental Services. It’s a fairly large company. They operate in 17 states. They were brought on board and introduced to our port by Devall Towing. And they provide a service that is called wet barge cleaning and stripping. These are the barges that move wet liquid products, mostly hydrocarbon based or petrochemical based. There’s a different technique that’s used for cleaning dry barges than wet barges. Wet barge cleaning and stripping was a service that was provided previously over by Bollinger (Shipyard). When they pulled out of our community last year, it kind of left a void here.

So USES picked up that service and they are doing it out of our port and they have partnered with a company called Tresco which is a subsidiary for a company called ChemStar out of Houston. What they do is take the product — the bottom of the barrel if you will — on the bottom of the barges, they clean it up and strip it out and clean the barges up so the barges can be used for another product by Citgo or other Southwest Louisiana plants, whoever is the local customer at the time. Then they take that product and store it in mobile storage facilities that we have at our port and from there they ship it by tanker back to Houston to the manufacturers and it is recycled. So it’s a recycling prospect for us. So that’s how they generate their revenue stream.

We have those five tenants. We’re always looking for more. We’ve had to do some infrastructure improvements at our port to make the environment there possible for these existing tenants and our new tenants to grow and make a dollar.

Our port does not have any tax revenue. We have no (property) millage. We are completely sustained by the revenue streams from our tenants. While some people may find that surprising, in actuality probably half of the ports in the state of Louisiana — and there’s like 37, 38 ports — probably half of them have no millage, so they operate within the ability to generate their own income and sustain their own costs and grow their own infrastructure. Now that doesn’t say we don’t have other sources of income. We have received grants from the City of Sulphur, the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, the state and the federal government. We have received two grants from the Port Priority Program that is run by the (Louisiana) Department of Transportation and Development and in 2009, we completed the maintenance dredging of our barge basin with the help of a $1.5 million grant from DOTD. That covered 90 percent of the construction cost and the port had to come up with the other 10 percent, plus all the cost for permitting and engineering.

As soon as we completed that in ’09, we applied for a second Port Priority Fund grant to do an 800-linearfoot expansion of our barge basin which included the moving of eight acres of dirt. We went about 11 feet below sea level and took all that dirt and moved it out. A $2.3 million grant from DOTD allowed us to complete that project. Again we had to come up with the other 10 percent for the cost of the construction and permitting as well as the engineering.

We’ve had that funding support. We’ve had some funding support post-hurricanes from Homeland Security and FEMA. That was very beneficial to us to get us back on our feet. We did have some damage out there.

But by and large, it’s a small port. It’s an open port in that it is not a TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) port. You are not required to have a TWIC card to come on our port. But there are portions of the port property that are TWIC access. We do have a security system and a security gate in place. The port is open from six in the morning until six at night. We close at night and on the weekend and on holidays, but we do have key-card passes for our tenants and our employees.

The thing about the port is that we do not work in a bubble. We are very closely in line with the Port of Lake Charles, the Port of Vinton, West Cameron and East Cameron ports and the Port of Mermentau. The six of us comprise the Southwest Louisiana Port Network. We meet on a quarterly basis, but we are constantly in touch with each other, referring leads, potential new tenants business back and forth. Obviously, the flagship for the community is the Port of Lake Charles and they are doing so well right now under Bill Rase’s tutelage. They have limited areas that they can provide support to and sometimes they run out of space or they get a certain customer doesn’t need deep water.

I’m not trying to minimize what you do, but would it be a simplified to say that West Cal Port is somewhat like a multi-faced truck stop?

(Laughter). In a very liberal sense, perhaps. We have our tenants. The provide their employers, they operate what they do there. Probably the biggest difference between us and the Port of Lake Charles is we have no staff. We have no office building. I’m a port director, I have been since June of ’06 on a contract, part-time basis. We have contract CPA support, we have a contract attorney and a contract engineer through Meyers and Associates. So, while we get no millage revenue we also run a very lean ship. Our expenses, we try to keep at a very minimum.

So if somebody was to drive out there and want to stop at the port offices, they couldn’t. Their initial effort to be introduced to the port is to call me and I operate with a cell phone, a laptop and a car. I’m highly mobile. It’s a beautiful relationship. It has worked out superbly for us because there will be a time down the road when this port will grow and expand and become more significant and a time when they may need a full-time staff support. I see that in the future for it. Obviously, it will be past my tenure. But I’m kind of that stop-gap person between what was before and what is going to be. It’s a great chapter and I’m having a lot of enjoyment. There’s a lot of reward in my workplace with the port.

We work closely with our Southwest delegation. They are very helpful in our efforts to become competitive with the rest of state for Capital Outlay funds. They are very supportive when we need legislation that needs to come forward that is beneficial to the marine community.

One perfect example is Senate Bill 122 this past session that was passed that modified and restructured the Infrastructure Tax Credit system that the state had in place previously for the ports. You had to have a project of five million dollars or more to qualify for it. In the past three years nobody qualified for it. So we were able to get that threshold lowered to 1.5 million dollars, largely through the work of the Port Association of Louisiana.

I think the people of Louisiana and Southwest Louisiana need to realize this state has a plethora of ports. You have your deep-water ports, you have your coastal ports, you have your inland ports and you have your emerging ports. All four categories are represented in the membership of the Port Association of Louisiana, which is our main communicative arm working with Baton Rouge and the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion and everything else. These ports work very well together. … Without the ports, a lot of what Louisiana is today would not be here.

What was the need for the expansion and how has the expansion helped the port?

The barge basin has been there for a long time. After the hurricane it was in bad shape. So in ’06, we applied for funding to get capital and finally we were able to complete in ’09 the maintenance dredging. Before barges were being parked better than a hundred yards from the shoreline because it was so shallow.

Because of silting up?

Yep. Soil coming off the shoreline and silting coming off the waterway. Plus, that was enhanced with the impact of the hurricane. Once we got that completed, we did the concrete revetment along the shoreline to firm that up and returned the basin to an 11-foot depth. We were then able to identify, and we did some research, we found that this area of the state and this was in ’09 before any of the announced growth and expansion in the economy, we did some polling and there was a plea for a need for shallow-water barge basin support in our region and it was on the verge of getting ready to grow. And our main tenant, Devall Towing, had a role in our research. So we made the decision to expand that barge basin. We had the capability.

With the help of the DOTD Port Priority funding money, we were able to put that in place. We went out for bids in 2010 and were able to secure the services of Apollo Environmental Company — they were the most competitive bid, I didn’t say the lowest bid, but they were the most competitive bid — and they were the contractor and we completed that work this spring. And the final steps of expanding that barge basin, and that included eight acres, four of which were determined to be wetlands was done this spring.

One of the problems we incurred with the plans to expand were those four acres, we knew they were wetlands and we understood that, but we didn’t anticipate the tremendous cost of mitigation for those four acres. We figured about twenty-five thousand dollars per acre. It turned out to be sixty-thousand per acre. We decided to go ahead and work with he Army Corps of Engineers and at the state level we also worked with the Department of Natural Resources and we worked with the federal and state level and our port and we actually came up with a plan that satisfied all their needs and that was we took the top soil from these eight acres and actually put it into some wetlands, a water area that we had on the western edge of our property. So we took four acres of wetlands out of commission and we created out of open water, eleven-and-a-quarter acres of marshland.

David Richard and the Stream Land Services Company helped us do that work. That was finished up about two weeks ago. That all went well and we have a spoils reception area at our port. The spoils from both of those projects went into the spoils reception area. A few more shipments of spoils into there and we will be ready to put that 40-acre piece of land on the market as something that can be very valuable to business and industry because it will be 11 feet above sea level, which is a magic number in the coastal area.

Anything below 11-feet, you have trouble with insurance companies. … It’s got a beautiful berm all the way around it and it is right on the water so it’s something down the road that will be very attractive for our expansion of the port. It’s probably not ready right now unless a tenant wants to come along and help us bring dirt in there. We’re seeing some projects in the Lake Charles area now where that’s exactly what’s happening. So, it’s not impossible.

The port completed the basic expansion and we actually opened up in the first quarter of this year. The expanded barge basin area is fully concrete revetted. We increased our barge basin capacity by 50 percent. We work with the Devalls to park barges for a daily rate — we really are a parking lot for barges — in our West Barge Basin, that’s called the West Fleet Area. On the east side of the Ellender Bridge that goes over the GIWW, is property that is owned by the Devall family and that’s called the East Fleet. With the arrangement that we have with the Devalls, our total barge counts every day includes both sides. We used to have barge numbers back from ’06 to 2011, we would have maybe 50, 60, maybe 70 barges a day. We’re now almost daily exceeding 100. In fact, last week we topped our number — we had 117 barges.

What it signals is the growth of private industry and the expansion of existing industry in our region, as they grow, they need certain supporting tools and one of those tools is shallow barges for moving products and moving other types of materials. Most of them do not have the ability to accommodate a large number of barges physically at their business locations so these barges need to parked someplace else and we are about the only place in the parish to do that.

One of the other things that we bring to the table in our shallow water services is that we have the only public loading ramp in the parish where you can drive a truck on to a barge. I refer to our existing barge loading ramp as the Rube Goldberg Memorial. It’s a contraption. It has survived a couple of hurricanes. It’s there, but it’s seen it’s better days, but it’s still functional and it’s safe. But it is also located in a place where we wanted to expand our wet barge cleaning and stripping operations. So to make that happen, one is the port can apply for Port Priority Funding project to assist us in getting the revenue to build a new barge loading ramp.

Last fall, the Devalls offered to fund $450,000 to build the ramp and provide it to the port and if you want to talk about public/private partnerships and success stories, there probably is not a better one than you can find anywhere between the West Cal Port and the Devall Enterprises and their companies. It’s amazing.

We all want to talk about these public/private partnerships and how they succeed. This is a great success story.

We are now in the process of engineering that new barge loading ramp and it will be constructed and probably completed later this year. It’s components are being constructed in Houston and the Devalls have retained the Orion Marine Group at our port to oversee the project and do the installation and development of it.

And that brings us to another story of what I’m very proud of and that is what I call the synergy between our existing tenants — the ability that each provides a service or a need that benefits somebody else in the port. The Devall barge fleeting operation has been a tremendous support to Orion from time to time. It certainly has made possible that our wet barge clean barge services. Without Devall we wouldn’t have done it. So there’s a lot of synergy and interconnectivity between our tenants.

We are moving along very well and what makes our barge loading ramp so valued right now is it’s pretty common knowledge in our community that there’s a lot of natural gas exploration and drilling development going on in our parishes, especially in the marsh lands of Cameron and Calcasieu where you just can’t drive out to them. It’s not like a deep water platform and yet it’s not dry land either. It’s coastal developed exploration and in many cases the only way you can really move material and services to that drilling operation is by barge. So we frequently have service trucks, i.e. Halliburton, Schlumberger to come out to our port. They will drive 18-wheelers off our ramp onto barges and they will go out to do their services at the drilling rigs and they will come back. So we provide a real valued service for that and with this new loading ramp coming in, we’ll even provide a much better service.

And again, capitalizing on this public/private concept, the loading ramp is just one step of this because we also are able to bring in the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury and from their gaming revenue that they get, we got a two hundred-and-fifty thousand dollar grant to install a seven hundred-foot hard surface roadway that will go to our loading ramp as you come in our main entrance. It makes a more direct run to the loading ramp and it is much more user friendly for the truckers to get on and off the ramp and the new ramp will make it easier for the captains of the push boats who are moving the barges in there. So that’s a good upgrade. We’re happy about that.

Another part of our infrastructure, the Orion Marine Group just completed an expansion of new bulkheading for us in the new East Barge Basin. Had we gone out on the local economy and bid for that work to be done, it would have cost the port probably in excess of three million dollars. But it was part of the agreement when Orion came in ’09 with their five-year contract that they would make these improvements to our waterfront and they were good to their word. They did a beautiful job on it. It’s another infrastructure growth element that we have really enjoyed.

In addition to that, we do have some other needs. One of the other needs around the Devall building at our port is bulkheading that is probably 35 to 40 years old and it has seen it’s better days. It has been through hurricanes, it has been through day-to-day rugged use in the shallow water fleeting business. So we are in the process of getting the funding in place to replace the bulkheading.

Last fall we went out with the help of Jay Delafield, a local bonding attorney — he’s probably one of the best in the state — and we were able to secure three million dollars in bonding through the state and we now have activated one million of that. We are using a local bank. We have a very competitive rate and we have one million sitting there that is actually being use to fund permitting and engineering for the replacement of the bulkheading.

The rest of the money will hopefully come from some Capital Outlay money, hopefully next year. We understand we have a chance to be moved from Priority 2 to Priority 1 for next year and we’re not just asking the state to fund the project, we intend to match that money dollar for dollar so that it’s not just a handout from Baton Rouge. That money that we are going to use is going to come from this bond money and this is the first time that the port has gone out for bond money. With the help of Jay Delafield and our own people, internally, on our staff of the port has contracts with, we were able to get that done.

What are the barges mainly transporting?

There are a variety of things. And some of these barges, it’s a pass through. Barges may come from the East Coast and may be headed on the Intracoastal to Texas. They may be coming from Texas headed for Florida. They may be coming from Texas to the Mississippi and up the Mississippi River so there’s a wide variety and sometimes they will come in at our port for a couple of days before they are ready to move on. Maybe they are waiting for another barge to be completed so there are a series of barges that will be pushed in one direction or another.

Many of the barges we have are loaded with petroleum coke, for example. As they load out with coke from our refineries and our communities, there is no place for them to store those barges so they come down and they park them at our barge basin. They do that with a contract at Devall Fleeting and then Devall Fleeting gets a share of that day rate and the port gets a share of that day rate. That’s the arrangement that we have.

The Devall contract that we have with our port that was scheduled to be up in 2017 was extended to 2037, so they have a lot of value for what the port is and where we’re at and quite frankly our port could not be what it is today without the public/private partnership that we have with the Devalls. So it’s very beneficial both ways.

Talk about how competitive barge traffic is and the capacity barge traffic has compared with rail traffic and truck traffic.

I’m sure the folks that run railroad lines and the folks with trucking companies have their own arguments on how they want to structure statistics, but based on the statistics that we received from the Waterway Council, which is a clearing house for companies that represent a lot of the business on the inland waterways in Washington (D.C.), the real benefit on barge is in two areas: one economical on how much fuel is spent on a mile per ton of product or materials moved and the other one is the environmental, the amount of emissions that are put into the air through the barge is considerably less than rail or truck that if you look at economics and environmental as two gauges to measure this, the barge industry is extremely competitive. And we are so fortunate in our corner of the state to have a couple of significant waterways — the Calcasieu River waterway and the Gulf Intracoastal Water Way. And we’re interconnected because the Gulf Intracoastal, you can move into the Mississippi (River) very easily and from there it can get you to the Missouri or Ohio (rivers). It’s very, very competitive, especially in the inner part of the country between the Rockies and the Appalachian mountains.

When you take the Intracoastal and you can go all the way over to Florida and from there you can connect up to the Carolinas, it’s very, very solid barge transportation industry and very competitive.

How do you see the port benefitting from the coming expansion coming in west Calcasieu with the local industries?

I think that the common phrase is that a rising tide raises all ships…. It truly is. We know the strength of the economic development at the Port of Lake Charles and what this is going to mean to them. When these businesses do their expansions and their growth and even afterwards when they become operational, there are secondary and tertiary businesses that are going to be needed to support them. Many of them are going to be anchored to the waterways one way or the other, and not all of them have to deep water. You can look at the growth that we anticipate will be at our port is going to be generated by companies that are going to be supporting these type of businesses — Magnolia, Sempra, Cheniere, Trunkline, Sasol.

But it’s not just the West Cal port either. You look at the Port of Vinton. It’s a small port, not an emerging port but more of an inland, small port. Dunham Price is their big tenant over there. They are just getting ready to make 350 acres available for development. They have one waterway that goes north off the Intracoastal towards Vinton and that anchors them in the Intracoastal. There’s great growth opportunities there.

You look at the mouth of the Calcasieu (Ship Channel) with the West Cameron Port. There is so much opportunity potential there for being another shore base for deepwater exploration and production, especially if we can get a public/private development of Monkey Island.

You look at the Port of Mermentau, there’s tremendous opportunity on the Mermentau (River) for the growth of construction materials and also for agriculture and food stock shipment and materials.

With the six ports around here we cover the whole gamut of what this community needs, even water for gaming vessels.

What ground haven’t we covered?

The West Calcasieu Port is tied very closely to the western part of the parish. Our board members are selected by the mayor and city council of Sulphur, by the West Cal Chamber of Commerce, by the police jurors from the West Cal area and also from the Labor Council. These five, they get a little bit of compensation for the monthly meetings, but I’m constantly in touch with them, constantly polling their opinions and attitudes and their advice. I work them pretty hard and they are very responsive and very supportive and they are a significant reason why we’ve had some success and then the rest of our staff, Meyer and Associations with engineering, Glen James with legal support, Darla Perry with CPA support. None of us are full-time for the port, but what a great team to work with. My hats are off to them.

And I go back to working with existing ports that we have in our area as well as the ports at the state level. The relationships are very strong and you think it would be competitive, and at a certain level there is some competitiveness, but more than that there’s some real camaraderie. With our six ports in Southwest Louisiana, there’s a lot of helping together. We even do some trade shows together. We’ll all staff a trade booth together.

The other thing I salute too is our leadership in Southwest Louisiana. For me and the port, it’s primarily the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury and the leadership they’ve demonstrated, the mayor and City Council of Sulphur, as well as the (legislative) delegation of Southwest Louisiana that carries our banner for us to Baton Rouge. And I don’t want to overlook our federals — I work very closely with Mark Herbert from Sen. Mary Landrieu, Brooke David for Sen. (David) Vitter and Joe Hill for Congressman (Charles) Boustany. Tremendous support I get from them to help grow our port.