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Army Corps clears middle Mississippi River for transport

Keywords: Tags  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi River, Mike Petersen, AEP River Operations, Marty Hettel, metal transportation

Just in time for the spring ramp-up of barge traffic, the middle Mississippi River is finally wide and deep enough for near-normal seasonal navigation thanks to dredging projects and winter precipitation, according to a major barge operator and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army Corps of Engineers removed 8 million cubic yards of sediment and rock between August and March, twice as much as would be dredged in a year without a drought, said Mike Petersen, spokesman for the agency’s St. Louis District. “As far as draft (the depth allowed for moving vessels), there are no restrictions right now, and barges and tows are loading normal amounts. Traffic is moving. We are through the tough spot.” The only thing left to do was rebuoy the channel--moving buoys farther apart to create a four-lane path in a two-lane channel.

Commodities shipped on the Mississippi River include steel, aluminum, scrap, ferroalloys and metallurgical coal.

Since the end of December, when low water levels became “critical,” the Army Corps of Engineers has provided two more feet of water by blasting rock pinnacles at Thebes, Ill., according to Marty Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales at St. Louis-based AEP River Operations. “We’ve (also) had tremendous help from Mother Nature” in the form of snowstorms.

“We are in much better shape,” Hettel said, adding that vessel operators also look forward to the spring release of water from the Gavins Point Dam on the upper Missouri River north of Sioux City, S.D.

Petersen said the release should add to the Mississippi’s channel depth at St. Louis. This winter, the Army Corps of Engineers twice released water from Carlyle Lake, a reservoir along the Kaskaskia River near St. Louis, to ensure minimum drafts.

“I think we are through the critical times,” Hettel said. “But who knows what happens next fall, when the Corps shuts the reservoir on the Missouri again? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Meanwhile, AEP is able to load 12-foot depths and expected to get back up to 25- to 30-barge-tows per push.

The Army Corps of Engineers is well aware that droughts typically last more than a year and is prepared to respond if river levels get low later this year, Petersen said.

The Army Corps of Engineers had been dredging between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., since last summer to preserve the river’s depth and width.

The total amount of cargo transferred through the two locks closest to the Thebes blast site fell in 2012, Army Corps of Engineers statistics show. Tons shipped through the Mississippi Lock and Dam 25 fell 23 percent in December vs. a year earlier, while total 2012 shipments fell 3.8 percent; tons passing through the Chain of Rocks Lock in December were off 22.1 percent from a year earlier and annual volume was off 4.1 percent.

Thomas Allegretti, president of Arlington, Va.-based trade group American Waterways Operators, said earlier that “further assurances are needed to provide industry with the certainty necessary for sound business and transportation planning. Economic damage has resulted from that uncertainty.” For months, the size of some tows carrying commodities was cut in half, transit times more than doubled and orders were canceled or curtailed.

Shipments of materials along the Mississippi River had been facing severe delays since last summer due to low water levels, and the situation likely would have worsened had action not been taken, according to market sources.

Without the Army Corps of Engineers emergency actions to ensure water levels didn’t fall below what is necessary to support inland waterway navigation, barge traffic along the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., could have come to a halt in early December, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries told its members.

ISRI said the problem had been due to a combination of low water levels, the annual operating plan of the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce flow into the Mississippi from the Missouri River, and rock formations in the water that needed to be removed to allow passage of the barges during low water conditions.

Water levels on the Ohio River at Cairo--where it meets the Mississippi--dropped to 10.4 feet from 11.14 feet during the first three weeks after Thanksgiving. Barges and tugboats require a 9-foot draft to navigate.

“For many months, our difficulty in accessing the river--ordinarily a routine element in our sales program--created serious challenges for us as a supplier to mills, which typically prefer to source scrap along the inland waterways due to favorable freights,” a scrap industry source said. “The additional loading costs and dead freight charges resulting from seriously low water levels resulted in significantly reduced utilization of this mode of transport, putting further pressure on the already higher rail freight treatment of scrap.”

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