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Mississippi River rock blasting progresses

Keywords: Tags  Mississippi River, Army Corps of Engineers, Thebes, rock blasting, Sen. Dick Durbin, American Waterways Operators, Tom Allegretti, barges Corinna Petry

CHICAGO — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ latest channel improvement project on the Mississippi River is progressing quickly and cargoes are moving through the area, a spokesman told AMM.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Louis division recently expedited a contract to blast away exposed rock formations at Thebes, Ill., to aid navigation on the river, which has been severely hampered by low water levels caused by the Midwest drought. Operators of 9-foot-draft vessels and the shippers they service have had to reduce loads by up to 50 percent; because navigable channels have been narrowed, they’ve also reduced the number of barges per tow.

The U.S. Coast Guard has established a safety zone around the work. Blasting, which began Dec. 17, takes place 16 hours a day, allowing vessels to pass at night.

"The progress is excellent and is moving quickly. We expect 2 feet of additional depth in the channel by Jan. 11," Bob Anderson, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley division, told AMM. Another phase of the project will widen the channel at Grand Towers, about 40 miles downstream, he added.

"The (average daily) number of tows waiting are 40 to 50 northbound and southbound," Anderson said. To date, no vessels have had to wait an extra day to transit the work zone.

The Army Corps of Engineers has twice released reservoir water to improve flow at St. Louis. The latest National Weather Service forecast indicates snow melt and rain this week, which should "add several inches to the river," Anderson said.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), who had pushed Army Corps of Engineers leadership to take action on the problem, was among a group who took a boat tour of the Thebes work site this week.

"We took them out to the rock removal site near Thebes. We showed them how the survey boats operate and how deep the river is where rock has been removed," Anderson said. "We had a meeting (Monday) with the navigation industry and the Coast Guard. Shippers are complimentary about the work, and they’re glad we expedited the contract award."

Shippers and vessel owners represented by the American Waterways Operators (AWO) and the Waterways Council trade groups thanked elected officials for their efforts, but "we are not out of the woods," AWO president Thomas Allegretti said Tuesday.

"Further assurances are needed to provide industry with the certainty necessary for sound business and transportation planning beyond January. Economic damage has resulted from that uncertainty," he said. For months, the size of some tows "carrying commodities ... has been cut in half; transit times have more than doubled; orders have been canceled or curtailed; and jobs have been jeopardized."

The volume of commodities shipped through two lock systems dropped sharply in December from the previously month (see chart).

Allegretti said that without an assurance that a 9-foot draft will be maintained throughout winter, "we lack certainty that the (Mississippi) will continue to effectively move commerce."

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