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Egypt Suez Canal

This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, Saturday, March 27, 2021. Authorities are preparing to make new attempts to free the giant container vessel stuck in Egypt's Suez Canal for a fifth day and reopen a crucial east-west waterway for global shipping.

There was joy in the Suez Canal on Monday as salvage teams freed the oversized container cargo ship Ever Given from the bank where it had been stuck for six days.

According to the Associated Press, the Ever Given’s woes created a traffic jam that held up $9 billion a day in global trade and strained supply chains that rely on just-in-time delivery. It also cost Egypt about $95 million in tolls.

In a roundabout, six-degrees-of-separation kind of way, what happened in the Suez Canal has warnings for those of us who rely on the Ohio River for the movement of cargo. Here’s how.

Container ships have been growing in size in recent years. The larger ones are too big to use even the widened Panama Canal, and many ocean ports aren’t large enough to handle them. The size of container ships has grown in part because the demand for shipping by container has grown. That’s one reason Norfolk Southern railroad created the Heartland Corridor through southern West Virginia for container shipping.

The Ever Given shows what happens when ships outgrow the infrastructure built to support them.

There is talk of building container ports along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to take better advantage of container cargo moving through ports on the Gulf Coast. The idea would be to load containers onto barges or even a new class of boat to operate on the inland rivers. That idea has not caught on commercially — not yet, at least.

Even if container traffic did begin on the Ohio River, there are a few differences between inland boats and ocean-going vessels. The Ever Given is more than 1,300 feet long. The longest lock on the Ohio is 1,200 feet, so container vessels would have to deal with that restriction. Also, the Ever Given is longer than the southern part of the Suez Canal, where it got stuck, is wide. Most of the Ohio River channel is wider than 1,200 feet, so a boat is not likely to get stuck sideways.

One other difference is how the ocean-going container business operates. The Ever Given is owned by a Japanese company that hired a Taiwan company to operate it under the flag of Panama and with a crew from India. Those kinds of international dealings don’t happen on American rivers because of the Jones Act.

The Jones Act is a federal law that requires cargo shipped between U.S. ports to be moved on ships that are built, owned and operated by American citizens or permanent residents. From time to time, there are efforts to weaken the Jones Act by allowing foreign-flagged vessels to operate on American waterways, but usually those efforts go nowhere. For one thing, how would people in West Virginia like seeing a towboat crewed from India and flying the Panama flag pushing coal on the Kanawha River? Very few.

Container shipping may come to the Ohio and Kanawha rivers someday. The dynamics of the shipping business would have to change, but some change cannot be predicted accurately. Accidents, weather-related events or routine maintenance at locks and dams can disrupt the flow of waterborne commerce. The saga of the Ever Given is a reminder of how simple events can shut down complex systems.

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