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No near-term relief seen along rivers

Keywords: Tags  flooding, barge accidents, Illinois River, Mississippi River, Ingram Barge, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard, Marseilles Peoria

CHICAGO — Numerous lock closures and a trio of barge accidents have kept shipping along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers at a standstill as flooding remains a threat to the waterways, with no immediate relief in sight.

The U.S. Coast Guard found no damage following an inspection at the Illinois River’s Marseilles lock and dam, where salvage operations have begun after three vessels broke free and crashed into the structure April 18 (, April 19).

"The high water and fast currents make it all a challenge," Nashville, Tenn.-based Ingram Barge Co. spokesman Keel Hunt told AMM.

Meanwhile, barges also have broken free on the flood-swollen Mississippi River. Mike Petersen, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Louis District, said that 89 barges broke free April 20 at St. Louis harbor, and the river there remains closed.

"Some of (the barges) sank. One is in the navigation channel but under 20 feet of water, so it’s not an immediate threat to mariners," he said, although the wreck has been cordoned off for safety reasons.

Petersen said the Army Corps of Engineers activated its emergency operations center this past week, which is sending crews to assist levee districts and check on dam safety.

Meanwhile, downstream in Vicksburg, Miss., 30 barges carrying coal and grain broke away from a tow April 21, Coast Guard Petty Officer Ryan Tippets told AMM. "The lead barge struck a railroad bridge and all 30 broke away," he said. "One has sunk parallel to the navigation channel, two are partially submerged and one is resting atop a river dike."

There is a safety zone in effect at Vicksburg. "No river traffic can go through unless directly involved in recovery efforts," Tippets said.

Tippets could not estimate when the channel might reopen but confirmed that "salvage operations are going on now." As of April 22, six vessels heading upriver and three heading downriver were stopped.

Two of four closed locks have reopened on the Illinois River: T.J. O’Brien at Chicago and Dresden Island south of Channahon, Ill., a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Rock Island District told AMM. The Marseilles and Starved Rock locks remain closed, she said.

Mississippi River lock and dams 16 through 22, along with 24 and 25, remain closed, Petersen said, to protect critical components and allow the Army Corps of Engineers "to restore service quickly once the flood waters recede." He did not know when they would reopen.

The forecast doesn’t appear to be improving in the coming days, Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said, with the Illinois River beginning to rise at Peoria, Ill.

"Peoria should be at 29.3 feet at 7 p.m. (April 22), go up to about 30 feet and maintain that high until April 26," according to the Rock Island District spokeswoman, well above the record high of 28.8 feet."

Keystone Steel & Wire Co. in Peoria, is "up and running in all departments," president Vic Stirnaman said. However, "we cannot use barges until the river gets past the crest."

Sections of the Illinois River and many parts of the Mississippi River have yet to crest to flood stage, with more rainfall expected through April 23. An 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi, from mile markers 70 to 155, was closed April 22, Fogarty said.

"(The) Illinois will continue to rise, and we expect more precipitation over the greater Midwest," he said. "We will get 1 to 3 inches of rain over the Illinois and Mississippi river basins and 6 inches of snow on the Missouri River in Nebraska and South Dakota. This is looking like a heck of a flood season."

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