The nations metals
transportation sector breathed a sigh of relief in early March,
when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that the Mississippi
River near Thebes, Ill., had finally been widened and deepened
enough to allow normal barge traffic up and down the river.
The Army Corps of Engineers has
dredged more than 8 million tons of sediment from the narrow,
constricted channel between Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Cairo,
Ill., since last summer. Lower-than-normal snow melt in the
winters of 2010-11 and 2011-12 and drought conditions last
summer dropped river levels near Thebes to the point where the
Army Corps restricted passage through the stretch and seriously
considered halting barge traffic altogether in late 2012.
Commodities shipped on the
Mississippi River and adjacent inland waterways include
finished steel and aluminum, scrap, ferroalloys and
As most people have heard,
the persistent drought in the Midwest is challenging the
navigation industry, AEP River Operations noted recently.
River conditions are predicted to remain low for the
immediate future. AEP River Operations will continue to
evaluate and make operating adjustments as necessary.
St. Louis-based AEP River
Operations, a barge company that offers customers in the steel
and other dry bulk industries a fleet of more than 3,220
covered hopper barges operating throughout the inland river
system, moved more than 80 million tons of cargo in 2012.
AEP River Operations and other
dry bulk barge lines in middle America coped with river
closures of 16 hours a day while Army Corps of Engineers
contractors worked to dredge the bottleneck near Thebes so that
the channel was navigable for barges and towboats with a draft
of 9 feet. Since last fall, barge tows hauling steel, scrap,
metallurgical coal and other dry bulk cargoes were allowed
through the Thebes passage only from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
The situation on the Mississippi
River worsened appreciably last November when the Army Corps of
Engineers began reducing water flows to the Mississippi River
from mainstream dams on the Missouri River to protect wildlife
habitat in the Dakotas.
In a late-November letter to
President Obama and officials of the Department of the Army and
the Federal Emergency Management Agency, representatives of the
Steel Manufacturers Association, the Institute of Scrap
Recycling Industries, the National Mining Association and other
dry bulk cargo interests utilizing the nations inland
waterway system asked for a presidential emergency
The groups argued that
substantial curtailment of navigation would effectively
sever the countrys inland waterway superhighway, imperil
the shipment of critical cargo for domestic consumption and for
export, threaten manufacturing industries and power generation,
and risk thousands of related jobs in the Midwest. An
estimated $7 billion in cargo passes through the Mississippi
River bottleneck at Thebes each year, the groups pointed
As it happened, the Army Corps
of Engineers was able to work round-the-clock to reduce rock
pinnacles on the bottom of the river, giving shipping interests
an extra 2 feet of water at Thebes, while Mother Nature helped
to alleviate the situation with a wetter-than-normal winter in
the Midwest and an increase in snow pack in the Upper
Mississippi River and Upper Missouri River basins.
The Washington-based Waterways
Council, which represents shipping interests on the inland
waterway system, lauded the Army Corps of Engineers for hiring
Newt Marine Inc., Dubuque, Iowa, and Kokosing Construction Co.
Inc., Fredericktown, Ohio, to blast and excavate underwater
rock pinnacles in a 1.2-mile stretch near Grand Tower, Ill.,
and in a five-mile stretch about 35 miles downriver near
Thebes. All told, the contractors removed 365 cubic yards of
the limestone formations, adding at least another 2 feet of
depth to the navigation channel. Ironically, heavy
rainfall has since swollen the river by 8 feet or more,
the council said.
Problems with low water
arent restricted to the Mississippi River. Up to 80
percent of the nations iron ore moves to integrated steel
mills aboard Great Lakes bulk carriers that shuttle between the
iron ranges of northern Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of
Michigan and the blast furnaces located at the lower end of the
Great Lakes. Each year, an average of 40 million tons of iron
pellets are delivered to the steel industry via the Great
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence
Seaway system, which opened its 2013 navigation season in late
March, has been struggling with low water levels on Lakes
Superior, Huron and Michigan for years. And unlike the recent
problems on the Mississippi River, the low-water situation on
the Great Lakes doesnt get the media attention given to
the Mississippi River.
The maritime industry on
the Great Lakes is battling the same issue, but without the
same level of news coverage, said Adolph Ojard, director
of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority in Minnesota, the busiest
port on the U.S. Great Lakes. And light-loading due to
restricted drafts in small ports and shallow channels is adding
to our costs.
The Cleveland-based Lake
Carriers Association, which represents 17 American
companies that operate 57 U.S.-flag vessels on the Great Lakes,
said that inadequate dredging took a real toll on Great Lakes
shipping in 2012. The drought has pushed water levels on
Lakes Michigan and Huron to record lows, the association
said. The water level in the St. Marys River also
declined as 2012 wore on; by years end, ships were
loading to less than 26 feet. In 1997, the last period of high
water, ships routinely locked through the Soo drafting 28 feet
or more. That loss of draft cost some ships more than 10,000
tons of cargo on their final voyages of 2012.
Dredging the approximately 10
miles of draft-restricted area on the Upper Great
LakesÑmost of it concentrated on the St. Marys
River, linking Lake Superior with Lakes Huron and
MichiganÑis identical to the deepening project on the
Mississippi River below St. Louis, and would free up Great
Lakes bulk freighters to load a full 2 feet deeper, Ojard said.
The cost/benefit analysis of this project is
The Lake Carriers
Association estimated that removing the 17 million cubic yards
of sediment that clog the connecting channels in the Upper
Great Lakes would cost approximately $200 million, about 2
percent of a federal trust fund surplus that is supposed to pay
for harbor and navigation maintenance.
Looming over all of the weather
changes affecting the nations transportation system is
concern about what the impact of political gridlock in
Washington might have on shippers.
The long-feared sequestration mandating across-the-board
cuts in funding for most federal departments and agencies,
including the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard,
finally took effect March 1. Officials are already cutting back
on overtime and handing out notices of possible furloughs. The
White House Office of Management and Budget has circulated
detailed guidance on sequestrable budgetary
resources showing that the Army Corps of Engineers could
lose $484 million in appropriations, as well as another $67
million from trust funds and other such accounts.