Rock formations have studded the bottom of the Mississippi River for eons. With drought-stressed water levels near record lows, shippers say they must be blasted away now to keep commerce moving on the nation’s busiest waterway.
That is setting up a conflict with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has plans to wait until February to award a contract to remove rocks, known as pinnacles, near the Illinois towns of Thebes and Grand Tower. It’s a complicated project involving synchronized dynamite blasts that may cost as much as $10 million.
“We need to spend our due diligence on the front side,” Mike Rodgers, the Corps of Engineers’ project manager for the rock removal, said yesterday in a phone interview. “The last thing we want to do is to get a contractor out there sooner and to have him not be able to perform the work.”
Corps officials are open to expedited dynamiting of the rocks and increasing the flow from a tributary to keep river traffic flowing, Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said today after a meeting of lawmakers with Jo-Ellen Darcy, Army assistant secretary for civil works and head of the corps.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said the president is exploring “all possible options” to maintain river traffic.
Mississippi River barge traffic is slowing as the worst drought in five decades combines with a seasonal dry period to push water levels to a near-record low, prompting shippers, including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., to seek alternatives. Computer models suggest that, without more rain, navigating the Mississippi will start to be affected Dec. 11 and the river will reach a record low Dec. 22, said Army Corps spokesman Bob Anderson, based in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Industry groups have been pressing to get the work under way quicker to keep open a route through which $7 billion in goods pass in a typical December and January. The American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council Inc. issued a Nov. 8 statement urging Congress to expedite the rock removal.
“There are two small areas,” Andrew Carter, vice president of sales and distribution for Knighthawk Coal LLC in Percy, Illinois, about 66 miles (106 kilometers) southeast of St. Louis, said in a phone interview. “If they would blast that, if they could get out there and do that work in December, we could have close to nine-foot drafts. That solves your problem right there.”
“If this were a business it’s a five-minute conversation,” he said. “You remove the rocks, you maintain the flow. It’s a pretty simple deal.”
Lawmakers led by Senators Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, and Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, and industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute want President Barack Obama to declare a federal emergency along the river. Demolishing the pinnacles immediately would avert a “looming crisis” caused by the drought and seasonal water-flow restrictions on the Missouri River, lawmakers said in a Nov. 16 letter to the Corps’ Darcy.
“It’s going to take some time to get somebody prepared to do this work,” Michael Petersen, a Corps spokesman based in St. Louis, said. “It’s not typical work, and there’s not a lot of folks who do it. Here on the Middle Miss, we haven’t had rock work done in quite a while.”
The Corps of Engineers by tomorrow plans to issue its request for proposals to remove almost 7,000 cubic yards of submerged rocks located on a stretch of river between St. Louis and Cairo, at the southern tip of Illinois.
At least 14 companies, including Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corp. of Oak Brook, Illinois, and closely held LS Marine Inc. of Vadnais Heights, Minnesota, are listed as “interested vendors” on a U.S. contracting website for the project.
“You can drill it and blast it and dig it out, or you hammer it and dig it out,” Taylor Luke, operations manager at LS Marine, said in a phone interview. “If it’s not too dense, you can try to do it with a backhoe.”
Contractors will need to remove dense limestone, including some within a fault zone, according to the project’s per-solicitation notice. About 6,500 cubic yards of it is located near Thebes, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, according to Rodgers of the Corps of Engineers.
“The most reliable method that we know of is the drill-and-blast method,” he said.
In such a process, workers bore a hole to a certain depth and fill it with explosives and smaller rock fragments, which helps focus the impact on the river bed, according to Rodgers. Small, controlled blasts are detonated every 30 seconds or so to minimize the effect on marine wildlife, he said.
The agency plans to make an award in late January or early February, and it expects about 900 cubic yards of the most hazardous pinnacles, near Thebes, to be blasted away within 60 days after work begins, he said. Blasting has to be coordinated with the seasonal spawning of pallid sturgeon, according to a brief on the Corps of Engineers website.
Barge captains have long navigated the contours of the Mississippi River made famous by Mark Twain, carefully following a channel that winds between submerged pinnacles.
Now, the water is approaching levels that are too low, according to Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations LLC, in Chesterfield, Missouri, near St. Louis. The company, a subsidiary of power provider American Electric Power Co., carries such commodities as coal, wheat, iron and soybeans along the Mississippi.
“You need to have a foot of clearance between the bottom of the barge and the bottom of the river,” Hettel said in a phone interview. The Mississippi river near St. Louis is already about seven feet low, and the pinnacles will pose a navigational risk if the water falls another three feet, he said.
The government timed the project for a period when river traffic and water levels are relatively low. The Corps of Engineers plans to keep the river near Thebes and Grand Tower navigable while the rock removal is under way. It is authorized to maintain a channel at least 300 feet wide by nine feet deep, according to Rodgers.
“You really can’t time Mother Nature,” he said. “We’re taking advantage of what she’s providing, which is low water.”