Choke Point of a Nation: The High Cost of an Aging River Lock
Nov 24, 2016 -
Luther Helland stood on a platform in the middle of the river and surveyed his dam. It was in bad shape. Several of the panels that kept the water back were missing, while others were out of true. Weeks of work stretched before him, compounded by the vagaries of the river.
Mr. Helland, 37, is master of Lock and Dam No. 52 on the Ohio River. That makes him responsible for billions of dollars’ worth of cargo and the operation of countless factories, power plants, farms and refineries east of the mighty Mississippi. By extension, then, he is responsible for the livelihoods of millions of Americans.
Built in 1929, Lock No. 52 sits in a quiet corner of southern Illinois that happens to be the busiest spot on America’s inland waterways, where traffic from the eastern United States meets and passes traffic from the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River. More than 80 million tons of grain, coal, fuel and other goods — worth over $22 billion — move through here each year.