Sept. 30–It isn’t just tropical storms or hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico holding back barge traffic on the Ohio River, according to Brian Wright of the Owensboro Riverport Authority. Rather, he says, it’s dams.
Or, at least, one dam.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lock and Dam No. 52 underwent an almost week-long navigational closure earlier this month that reportedly held back at least 30 tows. Then, as recently as last week, the corps’ 53 Lock and Dam held up traffic while divers cleared river debris from a lock chamber there.
Significant lags in river traffic can be detrimental to riverport customers, Wright said. By extension, wait times there can potentially drive up the cost of goods. If barges carrying corn to market are stopped at one of the nation’s busiest bottlenecks, it’s only logical that the price of cornflakes are going to rise.
For at least two years now, inbound barges have accounted for about 80 percent of Owensboro’s 1 million tons of traffic, meaning unstable navigational flow compounds the problem.
“When a barge arrives at the riverport, we basically have so many days in our contract with a customer to get that cargo unloaded and on its way,” Wright said. “Typically that’s around three days. If barges are steadily locking through and delivering, then we’re able to assist them every day. But when there’s a delay, they may release a week’s worth of barges all at once, so we’ve got 10 barges to be unloaded and only three days to do it.”
In order to avoid contract penalities, Wright’s 45-person staff may face long, grueling hours or he may have to turn to contract labor to get the job done. Overtime pay accounts for the most significant impact delayed barges have, he said.
Delays at 52 and 53, officials say, are hardly unusual. Both aging dams, built near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers west of Paducah, are nearing 90 years old. They’re constructed of white-oak-timber or concrete-block wickets that form individual segments of the barrier. Each wicket can be lowered to the riverbed or raised back up with a steam-powered boat during times of varying water levels.
According to a corps spokesperson Friday, 52 was closed to barge traffic for nearly a week when high velocity water made it impossible to lift the wickets back up into a secure, locked position. Then last week, 53 was closed for at least a day because underwater logs had impacted the lock chamber, meaning divers had to attach ropes and cables to pieces of debris and watercraft above to clear the way.
“The velocities of flow on the Ohio are what enable the locks and dams to work,” said public affairs specialist Carol Labashosky. “If the velocities are too strong, we can’t do the repairs. It’s just by virtue of the nature of the river.”
But there is some hope.
The Olmsted Locks and Dam a few miles downstream is expected to replace both 52 and 53 by late next year. The older structures are slated for demolition by 2020. The project, which was envisioned as long ago as 1980, has taken almost a quarter of a century to come to fruition, and almost triple over budget, but some corps reports say delays on the older structures could be costing the American marketplace more than $600 million a year.
“There are certainly economic delays that are caused by the ancient, and I stress that these are ancient, dams,” Labashosky said. “That’s why the relief is going to come in 2018.”
The 52 site alone locks through more than 80 million tons of cargo alone making it the single busiest in the entire U.S. inland waterway system. The New York Times in 2016 referred to it as the “choke point of the nation,” citing unmatched tonnage per year at both sites and their aging infrastructures.
Whatever relief may be coming, Wright said he’s not optimistic in the short term.
“They’ve corrected the problem for now, but that’s a short-term fix,” he said this week. “But they continue to have ongoing maintenance issues there, and that’s had much more of an impact on us than any storms.”
The riverport is responsible for hundreds of thousands of tons shipped back and forth mainly westward through those dams, and Wright said ongoing delays related to maintenance as well as construction at the Olmsted site is a major concern.
Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @austinrramsey