Barge Operators Boost Mississippi Cargo as River Deepens

Emergency work to deepen the Mississippi River shipping channel will avert a shutdown of barge traffic this month, lawmakers said as operators began increasing their cargo loads on the nation’s busiest waterway.

“We’re back, moving up here,” Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations LLC of St. Louis, said today in an interview in Thebes, Illinois, where rock obstacles threatened to jam traffic on the river.

Expedited dredging and rock removal, combined with a warming trend and anticipated rainfall, will maintain at least a 10-foot river depth needed for navigation near Thebes through this month, Major General John Peabody, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley division, said today. He didn’t offer a forecast beyond Jan. 31. The river is about 11 feet deep at Thebes, officials said.

The Mississippi in a typical January carries as much as $2.8 billion in cargo, including grain, coal and crude oil, according to the American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group. The U.S. Army’s emergency steps include dredging and removing rock obstacles in the river between Illinois and Missouri, due to the worst drought since the 1930s.

Dredging Channel

Just north of the hamlet of Thebes, dredging boats operating 16 hours a day sitting in the river, which the drought has turned into a creek. Tractors on the vessels dip their buckets into water, which then emerge dripping with mud dredged from the bottom.

A single tow boat, waiting to pass through the work site, is visible beyond the dredging vessels. Other boats wait to negotiate a bend in the river, said Mike Petersen, a Corps spokesman. At night, the river opens for barges, according to Thebes Mayor John Kennedy, a Lowe’s Co. manager.

“It seems like it’s running pretty smoothly in the evenings,” he said in an interview. Kennedy said he has never seen the river as low as it is currently.

Corps and U.S. Coast Guard officials briefed lawmakers including Senator Richard Durbin and Representative William Enyart, both Illinois Democrats, today at the Thebes courthouse, an antebellum structure overlooking the river, where Abraham Lincoln is said to have practiced law. The building, with wooden floors and a single room on the main floor, doesn’t appear to have changed much since Lincoln’s day.

Obama Monitoring

Durbin said President Barack Obama is monitoring the water levels in Thebes and is committed to keep the river open.

The White House has “ruled out nothing,” Durbin said. “Everything is on the table.”

Enyart, who took office last week, said emergency steps probably will be enough to prevent halting all shipping on the river.

“I think we’re going to weather this storm,” he said after a tour of the river by boat to examine excavation work.

Commodity exporters including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. of Decatur, Illinois, and St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp., the largest U.S. coal producer, ship on the river. A disruption might upend U.S. exports, which the Obama administration plans to double by 2014 from 2009 levels.

Shipments Slow

Grain tonnage for the week ended Dec. 29 fell 26 percent from the prior week and 28 percent from the same period a year earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a Jan. 4 report. The U.S. tracked 199 grain barges, down 29 percent from the prior week, USDA said.

Dredging and rock removal near Thebes will continue through this month, according to Peabody. By the end of the week, the channel will be at least two feet deeper, providing about 10 feet of water to accommodate vessels, he said. Contractors are still working to widen the river at several bends in its course.

The steps mean barge operators can once again use towboats that require at least 10 feet of water and add cargo to barges. AEP River Operations, which doesn’t own boats that can operate in shallower depths, on Jan. 4 resumed operations near Thebes and will move as much as 350,000 tons of cargo downriver from St. Louis in the coming weeks, Hettel said

The work doesn’t mean that shipping is completely back to normal, Hettel said. An AEP customer may need to use rail, a more expensive option than barge travel, to move a product at least part of the way from New Orleans to Chicago later this year, he said without identifying the company or cargo. A decision needs to be made by the end of January, Hettel said.

Within two weeks, contractors will begin moving to a stretch of river near Grand Tower, Illinois, to begin the next stage of rock removal, Peabody said.

“We have a very positive outlook for the next few weeks,” he said at today’s briefing.

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