GRANITE CITY, Ill. — Crews scrambled to make repairs Wednesday near the busiest Mississippi River lock shut down because of damage blamed partly on the summer drought, snarling hundreds of barges and tugboats in a backlog that was growing worse by the hour.
Workers closed Lock 27 just north of St. Louis last Saturday after discovering that a protection cell — a vertical, rock-filled steel cylinder against which barges rub to help align them for proper entry into the lock — had split open, spilling into the channel tons of the rock that ultimately obstructed passage.
That damage was on an unarmored section of the protection cell that the barges don’t typically make contact with because that portion often is 15 to 20 feet under water. But that part of the structure stands exposed because the river’s level has been lowered dramatically by the nation’s worst drought in decades, officials said.
The lingering drought also has narrowed the Mississippi — the nation’s chief highway for barge traffic, leaving towboat pilots struggling to find a safe place to park their barges river as they wait out repairs. The repairs could be completed as early as Thursday, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Mike Petersen said.
As of Wednesday morning, nearly five dozen tugboats and more than 400 barges — carrying enough cargo to fill 2,400 railcars or 23,600 large tractor-trailers — were caught up in the logjam, a Coast Guard spokesman in St. Louis said.
As of 9 a.m. Wednesday, the number of vessels forced to park there spiked by one-third over the previous 24 hours while there was a doubling of the number of barges, hauling everything from grains to coal, fertilizer and construction materials, Lt. Colin Fogarty said.
Other barges were parking at ports up and down the river, saving fuel instead of being caught up in the snarl near Lock 27 as workers labored to clear the spilled rock, then patch the fractured protection cell in what the Army Corps cast as a temporary fix.
“Imagine taking an eight-lane highway and reducing it to a four-lane one and having a massive traffic backup. That’s what we’re dealing with,” Fogarty said. “It’s like trying to find a parking spot at the mall on Christmas Eve — chances are you’re going to have to park far away, and you may not want to go at all.”
Roughly half of the nation’s farm exports pass through that lock now is closed at a time growers throughout the Midwest are harvesting their corn and soybeans, Petersen said.
“This literally is the artery of the nation, and when it shuts down there will be impacts,” Army Corps Col. Chris Hall told The Associated Press while showing a reporter the damaged protection cell. Pointing to the idling barges awaiting passage nearby, with those vessels having no option of taking any detour around the repair work, he pressed: “This is a pretty important piece of terrain.”
The trouble at Lock 27 is the latest barge-related headache brought on by the nagging drought.
Just a year since the Mississippi rose in some places to record levels, traffic along the river sometimes resembling a slow-motion freeway at times has been brought to a crawl, if not a congested mess. Several lower stretches have been closed, and barges have run aground. Other times, towboat pilots have had to wait at narrower channels for a barge to pass through in the opposite direction before easing their own way through, snarling traffic.
One estimate put barge industry losses at $1 billion the last time the Mississippi was this low, in 1988. That’s why the Army Corps has scrambled all summer to dredge, clearing shipping channels of silt and sediments while knocking down shallow spots.
To compensate, many barge owners now are carrying lighter loads, costing them more per ton to move cargo but also reducing chances of running aground as crews hustle o dredge silt and other sediments from the river to clear passages.
“It’s kind of bad news all around, but it’s not anyone’s fault but Mother Nature’s,” said Lynn Muench, a vice president with American Waterways Operators, a shipping industry trade group.View Entire Story
By John Solomon
How the government's punishing of the exposure of official wrongdoing can linger for years
Independent voices from the TWT Communities
“Right Angles” explores serious subjects, such as the Islamization of the Middle East and delegitimization of Israel, with humor, candor and a twist.
Columns from Voices around the World talking about the events, people, politics and social issues that concern us wherever, and whoever, we are.
Weekly agitation from a columnist who many believed to be one of the least likely to become known as a Conservative Republican.
Happiness is attainable. Morning to night. I love to teach, deal with folks that have an issue and really wish to tackle it and write.
Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal
Vietnam Memorial adds four names
Cinco de Mayo on the Mall
NRA kicks off annual convention