Cat 324E with EIK AM250 amphibious undercarriage works at a Houston Ship Channel DAMP site

Keeping Things Afloat:

Dredging the Houston Ship Channel

By Janet Kirkton, Dredging Industry Steward and
Caitlin Maddock-Bahr, Marketing Consultant

Keeping the Houston Economy Flowing with Amphibious Excavators

After Hurricane Harvey, the shutdown of air, rail, and port operations had an impact well outside the region due to Houston being a multi-modal interchange point. These disruptions are common following natural disasters such as hurricanes, snowstorms, etc., and typically result in high freight costs once commerce resumes in the area. Add to that the fact that two-thirds of the nation’s petrochemical traffic, along with general cargo and container ships, comes through the Port of Houston, one of America’s largest seaports, and we have a problem. The Port of Houston handles about 13 million tons of cargo each year, with about 8,300 vessels docking.

Wind damage from Hurricane Harvey to shipping and port infrastructure was minimal, but an enormous influx of water, sediment and debris entered the Houston Ship Channel, meaning it needed to be surveyed for navigational hazards before it was cleared to reopen to limited traffic on September 1, 2017.

Port Commission Chairman of the Port of Houston Authority, Janiece Longoria, recently spoke at the Port Commission monthly meeting, saying, “We are in desperate need of additional relief to properly dredge the channel so that it can accommodate normal commerce at its authorized depth and width.”

Dredging Today reports that Chairman Longoria has noted that ten feet of sediment has collected due to the immense amount of floodwater carrying silt into the channel, and this very seriously limits commerce if not addressed. In fact, a 2010 study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute reports that a loss of just one foot of depth in the Houston Ship Channel would cost the U.S. economy millions of dollars per year.

Where will all that sediment go?

The sediment that is dredged in order to maintain the channel needs to go somewhere. It’s always preferential to beneficially reuse dredged materials when possible, however the estimated 1.39 million cubic yards of sediment removed from the Houston channel is destined for upland disposal in a Dredged Area Management Program (DAMP) placement site. Over time, the sediment naturally dewaters and can later be harvested.

DAMP sites are areas enclosed by a levee that accept sediments that have been dredged from nearby ship channels. A few islands also serve this purpose. The sediment is hydraulically dredged and transported as a slurry to the site by a pipeline and spread out in layers approximately a foot deep.

 

The slurry that is pumped into DAMP sites resembles a shallow lake. When the sediment settles, the excess water is carefully drained off. A continuous cycle of ditching, draining, and drying is needed to remove water from the sediment and maintain capacity of the site. With the larger footprint and lower ground pressure, amphibious excavators provide a simple, cost effective solution with increased mobility in wet work sites. An excavator with a standard steel undercarriage would be unable to maintain flotation in these wet underfoot conditions.

Maintaining DAMP Sites with Amphibious Excavators

Steve, an operator with 25 years of experience, has been using a Cat® 324E with an EIK AM250 amphibious undercarriage and a 60 foot (18.5 m) EIK long reach front to maintain one of the DAMP sites near the Houston Ship Channel.

“The best feature is that this machine does not get stuck. There is plenty of power with the 4 motor multi-synchronous hydraulic motor direct drive system, and with the enclosed hydraulic drive there is not an exposed rusty drive chain to seize up like most other machines.”

Maintenance dredging is typically an ongoing process required to keep the ship channel at a minimum depth of 45 feet to allow large ships access. Without the port and ship channel being fully operational, petrochemical tanker ships’ routes have been cut off, restricting their ability to reach refineries and chemical docks in the upper portions of the channel.

Working in the water will become more and more necessary as restoration efforts continue in areas affected by storms such as Harvey, and equipment that is built to withstand those conditions is essential not only from a maintenance standpoint but also from a safety perspective. Specialty equipment, such as these amphibious excavators, are an essential part of recovery and restoration efforts, just as they have been essential for the maintenance of DAMP sites for a long time.

Janet Kirkton

As Caterpillar’s Industry Steward for Dredging, Ports & Waterways, Jan is constantly in pursuit of new opportunities and solutions to serve this vast industry. Her kids liken this job to being a "Master Transformer" - and truthfully, it kind of is.

In collaboration with customers and external partners, Jan leverages Caterpillar core products to develop new and innovative solutions for dredging companies and contractors. Whether you’re working on land or in the sea, our unique custom products benefit from the same incredible support from our dealer network as our standard Cat machines. How great is that?

Have an idea? She would love to hear about it. Connect with Jan on LinkedIn.

Caitlin Maddock-Bahr

Caitlin's passion is in storytelling and thought leadership, helping people connect with the brands they love and helping brands connect with their audiences. At Caterpillar, she gets to work with a variety of industries and customer solutions, including dredging.

It's not just about the yellow iron - it's about understanding the problems our customers face, and being a part of the total solution. 

Connect with Caitlin on LinkedIn.


Did You Know?

Amphibious Excavator working at Houston Ship Channel DAMP site.

Amphibious excavators come in many different sizes, from 5 to 50 metric tons. Contact your Cat® dealer for more information.

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