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Corps hires contractors, but river travel still risky

Keywords: Tags  Mississippi River, barge lines, river navigation, Army Corps of Engineers, Waterways Council, Cap Grossman, Grossman Iron & Steel, Marty Hettel AEP River Operations

CHICAGO — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has confirmed that it hired two contractors to blast away at exposed rock pinnacles in the Mississippi River at Thebes, Ill., but barge operators and shippers say that without a release of water from upstream reservoirs the project won’t secure navigable channels until February.

Meanwhile, shippers are scrambling to transfer tonnage from barges to rail cars and trucks. While no one contacted by AMM could estimate whether capacity on those modes of transport will be sufficient, they do know it will cost them significantly more.

The contractors hired to remove rock at Thebes were expected to arrive on location Thursday and Monday, respectively, Arlington, Va.-based trade group Waterways Council said Tuesday.

Authorities "are talking about being in there as soon as Monday, but we still need precipitation or water from a reservoir," according to Marty Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales at St. Louis-based AEP River Operations.

"There are 850 cubic feet of rock that will take 40 to 60 days (to remove). But the St. Louis (depth) gauge will be at minus 4 feet on Dec. 18, which will eliminate the (minimum) 9-foot-deep transit," he said.

Even if the contractors finish the work in 45 days, the river between Cairo, Ill., and St. Louis won’t be navigable from roughly Dec. 18 to Feb. 1, Hettel said.

"Our shippers are scrambling to look at alternatives. One option is to move to a river that doesn’t have an obstacle—you can’t get to the Illinois River because that will be shut off, too—so they have to go to the Ohio (River)," he said Wednesday.

Fewer barges are coming north from the Gulf of Mexico and from other points south on the river. "What’s the point?" when barge line operators, who fear getting equipment caught in low-water channels, can find sources of revenue elsewhere in the river system, Hettel said.

The circumstances "are pretty dire," Cap Grossman, president of St. Louis recycler Grossman Iron & Steel Co., agreed.

"The reality is, if you try to get a barge line to bring in and load and get to the channel, they won’t give you equipment. (Equipment) could be unavailable for months. As much as I would like to ship on the river, I cannot," he said. "We are taking rail car and truck orders."

The pressure on rail equipment is increasing, and rail cars might face a shortage in some regions, Grossman added.

While the arrival of blasting crews "is welcome news, it only solves part of the problem," Waterways Council president and chief executive officer Michael J. Toohey said. "(Existing) restrictions on navigation as water levels continue to drop will effectively shut down the river to barge traffic around Christmas."

The amount of cargo one barge can carry has already been reduced by nearly one-third, and the number of barges one towboat can move from St. Louis south to Cairo has fallen by more than half, sharply increasing costs, the council said.

"We did an independent survey of all of our tow and tug operators for tonnage they had on the books between December and January," Hettel told AMM. The total was 8.8 million tons per month—equivalent to 11,733 trucks per day at 25 tons per truck, or 2,937 rail cars a day at 100 tons per rail car.

"That is not feasible or economically possible," he said. "I don’t know what we’re going to do, (except that we, too) are moving equipment out of here so we don’t get it stuck."

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