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Huntington is no longer USA's largest inland port

What is the largest inland port in the United States? Your answer could depend on how you define the word "port," but no matter how you do, the answer is not Huntington.

Several years ago, Huntington received permission to expand the boundaries of what it calls its "port." The Port of Huntington-Tristate (as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spells it) takes in 100 miles of Ohio River, 90 miles of the Kanawha River and nine miles of the Big Sandy River. That's both banks of 199 miles of river for 398 miles total.

Until a few years ago, no other river area in the United States could match the amount of cargo loaded and unloaded at Huntington's "port." But then traffic dropped on the Big Sandy.

If you drive either U.S. 52 in Wayne County or U.S. 23 in Boyd County, Kentucky, you'll see several coal docks that are out of business. You will also see one gas-fired power plant on the West Virginia side and two on the Kentucky side. The switch from coal to natural gas as the fuel of choice for new power plants nearly killed the coal-loading business on the Big Sandy, where roads once were full of trucks delivering coal for transfer to barges.

In 2007, docks on the Big Sandy handled 21.9 million tons of cargo, most of which was coal, according to Corps figures. By 2016, the last year for which nationwide data has been published, that had dropped to 5.345 million tons.

As part of that, river traffic handled at the Port of Huntington-Tristate dropped from about 37.4 million tons in 2007 to 184.2 million tons in 2016. That's a 51 percent drop in less than a decade.

While that was happening, our friends in Cincinnati decided they needed to be designated as a port, too. In 2014, the statistical Port of Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky reported traffic of 49.9 million tons, which exceeded the 46.4 million tons here in Huntington. In 2016, Cincinnati reported 43 million tons.

So Huntington fell behind Cincinnati five years ago, and there is little reason to believe it has come back. In case you're wondering, Cincinnati's port includes 134.6 miles of river bank on the north side and 218.9 miles on the south side along with seven miles of the Licking River for a total of 367.5, which is less than Huntington's.

But numbers are numbers, and bragging rights are bragging rights, which probably explains why Huntington no longer bills itself as America's largest inland port. America's Best Community, yes, but not the largest inland port.

There are reasons the Corps keeps statistics this way, but in many respects it's a game that has gone on for decades. In the late 1970s, Huntington was recognized as the largest inland port. Eventually Pittsburgh and St. Louis enlarged their "port" boundaries and took that title from Huntington. A few years ago Huntington enlarged its boundaries and reclaimed the title. It even became a "Final Jeopardy" answer one night. But Cincinnati decided to play the game, and Huntington's rank fell.

If coal were to come back to where it was in 2007, Huntington could reclaim its title, but no one expects that to happen. We have other river opportunities in this region, but they haven't happened yet. The Huntington area is still a great place to be to enjoy the rivers, but time and circumstance have taken it down a notch or two in the bragging game.

Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email in jross@herald-dispatch.com.

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