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Wasted Stimulus Work Leaves River Rocks Blocking Barges

In 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, seeking a method less expensive and damaging to wildlife than dynamiting to clear rocks from the Mississippi River, committed $5.7 million to an experimental grinding process.

The project, financed by President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus program, was futile and called off after two efforts, one in 2011 and another earlier this year, totaling about four weeks.

The grinding job’s failure forced expedited efforts now under way to use explosives to remove formations, called pinnacles, that are imperiling commercial navigation as the river has receded to levels approaching historic lows in some places. The corps yesterday waived some competitive bidding requirements with the goal of starting demolition by Jan. 3.

“It’s been known for some time that the pinnacles need to be removed,” Merritt Lane, president of Canal Barge Co., a New Orleans-based marine transport company, said in a phone interview. “The pace of progress on that has been too deliberate from our perspective.”

The corps projects that shallow water will impair navigation on the Mississippi by Dec. 11 and a record low-water mark will be set on Dec. 22. Shippers are beginning to carry less cargo, reducing the amount of water their boats displace, and to look for other means of transport for their products.

The grinding project was assigned to Patton-Tully Marine LLC, a Memphis, Tennessee-based marine services company, in September 2009. Patton-Tully was the only bidder in what was designated by the corps as full and open competition.

Grinding Tool

The plan was to use a grinding tool attached to a long-armed piece of construction equipment mounted on a barge to nibble away at submerged rock formations in mid-river, according to Denny Burns, vice president of Patton-Tully.

“There wasn’t enough production to warrant going ahead,” Burns said in a telephone interview. “The corps elected to cancel the project and we agreed with them.”

Patton-Tully was paid $346,000 and the remainder of the contract was canceled in April 2012, according to contracting data compiled by Bloomberg.

The decision to try grinding came after the corps determined that blasting might be too expensive. Bids came in as high as $20 million during a solicitation several years ago, said Mike Petersen, a spokesman for the corps’ St. Louis district.

“We were looking for other techniques a little bit cheaper and a little less invasive,” Petersen said.

Water Levels

Work didn’t begin until 2011, about two years after the contract was awarded, because Patton-Tully had to wait until water levels dropped to reach the rocks, Petersen said.

Patton-Tully’s efforts filed down about 20 cubic yards of rock, compared with 890 cubic yards the corps wants to remove in the expedited demolition, Petersen said.

“Apparently their grinder kept losing teeth,” Petersen said in a telephone interview.

After the grinding project was shut down, finding another way to remove the rock structures between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, wasn’t a top priority as long as the water level was adequate for barge and towboat clearance.

“No, we haven’t really been focused on that except for now with this current situation,” said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., an Arlington, Virginia, trade group that represents shippers, ports, barge operators and other users of inland waterways.

‘Compelling Circumstances’

The corps had planned to begin using explosives in February to remove pinnacles near Thebes, Illinois. Yesterday, it said it would speed up the project by about a month based on “urgent and compelling circumstances.”

“We cannot study this any longer, we need action, we need water now,” Colbert said.

The rush to blast the rock formations was criticized as an unfair burden on taxpayers by David Conrad, a policy committee member of the Water Protection Network, a Washington-based coalition of more than 200 civic and conservation groups that advocates for economically and environmentally sound water projects.

Users of inland waterways have come to expect public funds to insulate them from having to adapt to disruptions as other shippers are forced to, Conrad said.

“Most other shippers just move to alternative forms of transportation,” Conrad said in a telephone interview. “It’s a temporary situation in all likelihood. If it’s not, then we’ve got worse things to worry about than just this.”

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