Jackhammers Pound River Rocks to Keep Mississippi Open

Blasting Mississippi Rocks Delayed as Backhoes Make Progress
A tugboat heads north on the Mississippi River past the Gateway Arch and downtown St. Louis, Missouri. Photographer: Whitney Curtis/Bloomberg

Efforts to clear the drought-depleted Mississippi River will proceed without the aid of explosives as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has opted, for the moment, to jackhammer submerged rock obstacles in hopes of opening the waterway for barge traffic.

While blowing up the so-called pinnacles, submerged formations south of St. Louis that hinder passage in the low-level Mississippi, remains “on the table,” a Corps spokesman said a “hydro hammer” will be used to break up the rocks.

“This thing is basically a huge aquatic jackhammer, it looks like something Wile E. Coyote ordered from Acme -- it’s awesome,” said Mike Petersen, chief of public affairs for the Corps’ St. Louis District.

As water levels fall to near-record lows, the rocks near the town of Thebes, at the southern tip of Illinois, loom as dangerous obstacles to vessels moving coal, grain and other cargo on the nation’s busiest waterway. Barges have already reduced loads as a precaution against striking the pinnacles.

Although Petersen said he expects explosives to be part of the solution for this 15-mile stretch at some point before the end of January, the river is low enough now to enable the breaking and removal of rocks at a lower cost and without the environmental and ecological damage from blasting.

Part of a $10 million project, the Corps had originally planned to plant explosives in the riverbed beginning yesterday. The river was closed to barge traffic for 16 hours starting at 6 a.m., the start of a daily shutdown to allow engineers to remove the obstacles.

River Closings

Portions of the Mississippi now resemble a beach at low tide. Sandbars have replaced areas that used to be marked by swirling currents. Barges with excavating equipment and Coast Guard patrol boats are the only vessels on the water for two-thirds of the day, while north and southbound barges wait in line for the eight hours they have to proceed.

Success in clearing the river will hinge largely on the weather.

“Rain, rain and more rain. There is no end game without more rain,” Major General John W. Peabody, the commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley region, told Bloomberg TV in an interview. “In about 30 days, we’ll have lowered the channel that has the rock obstructions in it by about a foot and a half. So that will take the navigation channel down about that amount.”

Unusual Levels

The last time the Corps had to resort to blasting was 1989.

“It’s unusual to have very low water like this,” Peabody said. “It doesn’t happen often, it happens periodically. Unfortunately when it does happen, it tends to go in multi-year stretches, so it’s possible that we may be seeing this for the next few years as well, depending again on what happens with the weather.”

Mississippi River barge traffic is slowing as the worst drought in five decades combines with a seasonal dry period to drop water levels, prompting shippers, including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and AEP River Operations LLC, to seek alternatives.

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. 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 and other obstructions.

Half Solution

Ann McCulloch, a spokeswoman for the American Waterways Operators, said there is “nothing to suggest the river levels will not continue to drop,” regardless of the success the Corps may have removing the pinnacles.

“We’re clearly seeing the consequences of reduced flows from the Missouri River, and removal of the rock obstacles is really only half the solution,” said McCulloch, whose Arlington, Virginia-based trade group represents the tugboat and barge industry.

Last week, the agency began to increase the flow from Carlyle Lake on the Kaskaskia River system in southwest Illinois, which it said may add 6 inches of water to the lowest point in the Mississippi. The Corps has so far refused requests from shippers to increase the flow of water from the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi near St. Louis.

The Mississippi at St. Louis and Thebes yesterday was about 18 inches above the level at which barges may not be able to pass safely.

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