Shawneetown port project: Officials say fertilizer dock could lead to further economic development

The more-than $13 million project to revitalize the Old Shawneetown river terminal will do more than just give new life to the most underused port on the Ohio River, says Patrick Scates, whose longtime family business is the catalyst for the development.

Turning the Shawneetown port into an active hub for incoming fertilizer shipments may be just the beginning of added economic development for southeast Illinois and the surrounding area, said Scates, general manager of the Scates Group Intermodal River Terminal LLC.

The LLC was put together by the Scates family - a well-known farming and business family in Gallatin County and a name known throughout southern Illinois - specifically to buy the 50 riverfront acres that were once owned by Peabody Coal and create the new facility. For decades Peabody shipped southern Illinois coal from the Eagle Mine Dock in Old Shawneetown to ports all over the world. The dock closed in February 2020, due to the general decline in southern Illinois mining.

The property will be co-owned by the Scates LLC and the Shawneetown Regional Port District.

Now, with $11.2 million in grant funds from the state of Illinois and another $2 million investment by the Scates, construction will begin in June or July on a 20,000-ton storage facility, where both dry and liquid fertilizer will be received and stored until it is shipped out to customers within roughly a hundred-miles radius, mostly in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

Inside the storage building will be blending equipment that will combine two or more types of fertilizer based on a customer's needs - allowing farmers to spread fertilizer on their fields in one pass, as opposed to several.

A belt line will be built to the river, where a working barge will be anchored. Barges full of fertilizer will come alongside the working barge to be unloaded - the dry fertilizer being carried on the belt line into the storage building, and the liquid fertilizer flowing through a steel line strapped to the side of the belt.

None of the fertilizer that will pass through Shawneetown is explosive, Scates said. It comes from all over the world.

Scates and others, like state Sen. Dale Fowler, who was in Shawneetown last week to tout the development, have said the goal is for the new port to be operational by January 2023.

Scates said the only reason the project is considered "shovel-ready" is because of the two docking cells, aka moorings, out in the river that are left over from the Peabody coal operation. Barges tie up to them.

"If those didn't exist it would push things back another year," Scates said.

The LLC has bought a working barge in New Orleans, that is being retrofitted in Eddyville, Kentucky.

Scates said the LLC will partner with a company that buys and sells fertilizer.

"We will handle (the fertilizer) and they will rent space from us. They'll store it on our property," Scates said. He is not yet ready to name the fertilizer company, "but we're close."

He anticipates the LLC will hire eight people full-time, four inside the storage facility and four out on the working barge and belt line. But other jobs will be needed in an ancillary capacity - particularly in trucking, which took a hit when the coal dock shut down.

The Scates family also has a trucking business, but Patrick Scates said there will be a lot more trucks and drivers needed to carry fertilizer that his own business can provide.

The local harbor service will also get a lot busier, towing barges into position to be unloaded and pulling them away again once the job is done.

Scates said the development will do a lot for the region.

"This is one of the most underutilized ports on the Ohio River," he said, pointing out that moving fertilizer - or any other goods - to metropolitan areas is easy with Route 13 right there, along with the bridge into Kentucky and two interstates nearby.

He said the new activity at Old Shawneetown will highlight the port and likely will bring more economic opportunity to the port.

"Moving products by water is by far the cheapest way," Scates said. The Ohio River doesn't freeze much anymore, and barges can move all year round, he said - although most of the fertilizer will be sold in spring and fall and that will be their busiest time.

The port in Shawneetown will limit truck traffic on local roads, he added, since trucks won't have to drive to Mt. Vernon, Indiana or Paducah to get it.

"If our facility doesn't exist, (fertilizer) will have to come out of another port, which means more trucking," Scates said. "Two things we are doing are making the product cheaper because it will require less transportation; and the trucks that do carry it will be going a shorter distance, which is safer and it saves wear and tear on roads."

Members of the Scates family who are part of the business are Tom Scates Sr.; his sons Patrick, the general manager and Tom Scates Jr.; their uncle, Steve Scates Sr. and his son, Steve Scates Jr. and cousin Tim Scates.