Coast Guard’s Inland River Vessel Movement Center monitors
movement of goods on the nation’s water ‘highways’
By DAISY RIDGWAY KHALIFA, Special Correspondent
The nation’s 10,000-mile river system, which
includes more than 15 major water “
highways,” are nothing less than an economic lifeline for moving manufacturing and agricultural commodities throughout the United States. For centuries,
people have relied on the transit of these goods — usually in bulk — along the rivers.
Before 2003, the transport on massive barges of fertilizers, metals and chemicals, among thousands of other
goods, carried on unremarkably, year in and year out —
part of a day-to-day routine peculiar to industrial trade.
Few, save for those inside the industry, were generally
aware that many of these barges carried hundreds of tons
of certain dangerous cargos (CDCs), or what one Coast
Guard official referred to as “the worst of the worst” substances, gravely harmful to humans and the environment.
These so-called building-block commodities
include ammonium nitrate, a dry bulk fertilizer, and
toxic inhalation gases (THCs) such as butadiene for
making plastic, propelyn oxide, chlorine and anhydrous ammonia, which is shipped as a refrigerated liquid at minus 432 degrees Fahrenheit. Anhydrous
ammonia is widely used in soil, for metal treatment
and in pharmaceuticals and plastics. If released into the atmosphere as a gas and ingested, it can
cause chemical burns to the lungs.
After 9/11, information on barge
cargo traffic on the inland rivers, in
particular the abundance of CDCs
being shipped daily, was deemed
critical data in terms of the mandate
for improved maritime domain
awareness. As a result, the Coast
Guard developed a tracking system
known as the Inland River Vessel
Movement Center (IRVMC). The
program was established in St. Louis
in 2003 and staffed with 20 Coast
Guard Reservists, who were charged
to gather, display and disseminate position reports on all
inland river barges to the local Coast Guard and other
government agencies so they could be in a better position for response and mitigation activities.
Burt Lahn, a marine transportation specialist with
the Coast Guard’s Waterways Management Directorate
and the program manager for IRVMC, said that after
9/11, the Coast Guard felt there was no tracking visibility of barges moving CDCs on the Western river system above mile marker 235 on the Mississippi, which
is a high-traffic fleeting area in Baton Rouge, La. He
said the Coast Guard saw an increased risk associated
with limited, if not nonexistent, maritime domain
awareness on the Western rivers and that the agency
needed to know the locations and intentions of barges
The information collected by the IRVMC system
includes a general description of the commodity, the
number of tons being transported, vessel specifications
and its destination.
The Coast Guard Reservists in St. Louis established
the initial procedures on how the information was
going to be received and processed in 2003. They also
The IRVMC gives the Coast Guard frequent position updates on
vessels carrying potentially dangerous cargo, thereby lessening
the reporting burden on towing vessel operators.
■ The system covers a vast area, including points east in Pennsylvania to parts of Minnesota and as far west as Wyoming.
■ Data that is collected includes a description and amount of the
commodity being transported, vessel specifications and its destination.
■ It puts the Coast Guard and other agencies in a better position
for response and mitigation activities.