Rail move maintains ‘route to the river’

Published 8:00 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2012

An energy company’s decision to ship a petroleum-based product to the Port of Natchez by rail should preserve the Brookhaven to Natchez rail line for the near future.

     Local leaders welcome the announcement after an attempt by the current owner to abandon the 66-mile east/west line last November.

      “The big thing is to keep that rail line open between us and Natchez,” said Mayor Les Bumgarner. “We’ve got to have enough traffic on that line to justify it remaining open.”

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     Bumgarner said the line is significant for Brookhaven because it allows the city access to a major shipping outlet it doesn’t otherwise have.

     “It’s important for us to have a route to the river,” Bumgarner said.

     Genesis Energy announced Monday it will expand its operations at the Port of Natchez and add 20 new jobs to handle the transportation of diluted bitumen mined from Canadian oil sands.

     Bitumen is an unconventional petroleum deposit similar in consistency to tar. Before shipping, diluent is added to bitumen to create dilbit.

     Dilbit will be shipped into Natchez and unloaded for transport to Gulf Coast refineries, said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc., an economic development partnership. The rail cars will be reloaded with diluent and sent back to Canada via the same route.

     Round trip, 20,000 rail cars are expected to come in and out of Natchez and through Brookhaven annually, Russ said.

     That volume of traffic should be more than sufficient to ensure the safety of the Brookhaven to Natchez line, Russ said.

     “That volume of traffic fortifies the line,” Russ said.

     The line has been troubled in recent years. CN sold it in 2009 to Natchez Railway, LLC, a division of the Utah-based V&S Railroad. That company in turn made an initial foray to abandon the line last November due to low traffic.

     Russ and Bumgarner agree abandonment would have been a blow to the region.

     “Having that connectivity to the river and to the CN main line is really important and vital,” Russ said. “It’s a strategic economic outlet we could not afford to lose in the region.”

     Most of the region’s natural resources, be it timber or gravel, move out through the river, Chandler said. This makes a link to the river significant.

     Bumgarner also fears that if the line were to be abandoned, it would never reopen. To address that fear, Lincoln, Franklin and Adams counties formed the Southwest Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority.

     “We have the right of first refusal to buy it,” Bumgarner said. “That’s something we would never want to do, but at least they can’t close it without giving us the opportunity.”

     The line to Natchez also passes through the local Linbrook Business Park. The park also has access to the north/south CN line. Bumgarner called this an asset for the park.

     And though the investment in the region by Genesis Energy won’t directly bring new jobs into Brookhaven, Bumgarner said Brookhaven benefits indirectly.

     “We’re in a triangle: us, McComb and Natchez,” Bumgarner said. “We feed off each other.”