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1. Mississippi River crisis disrupted freight markets in 1976

August 15, 2023   Yahoo Finance

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Every week, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.


This article comes from the June 1976 issue of American Shipper and recounts a massive backlog in the Mississippi River at the time and its aftermath.


Mississippi River gets new attention after 8-day crisis at locks and dam 26

A massive eight-day backup of barge traffic at Locks and Dam 26, during which shipping losses were estimated as high as $500,000 a day, may help to break up the logjam of controversy over the proposed replacement of the 38-year-old facility on the Mississippi River at Alton, 111.


The crisis began March 18, when part of a cell leading to the main 600-ft. lock collapsed, spilling boulders into the channel. Barge traffic was slowed but the Corps of Engineers managed to make temporary repairs using a huge steel plate. Then on April 8, a towboat accidentally hooked the plate, tearing it loose and blocking the channel.


Markets disrupted

By the time repairs were made and the facility reopened eight days later, an estimated 100 towboats and 900 barges jammed the riverbank near Alton. The backup disrupted the grain, chemical, coal, and fertilizer markets.


Had the tie-up at Locks 26 continued, the economic consequences in the grain market alone could have been disastrous. Grain elevators on the upper Illinois River closed during the backup because no empty barges were available, according to Jim Layton of the St. Louis Grain Corporation.


Prices for grain south of Alton and Locks 26 escalated, Layton said, because traders knew it could be shipped without difficulty to New Orleans, the world’s largest grain exporting port.


The Grain Terminal Association in Minneapolis-St. Paul reported a 4-cent-a-bushel drop in corn prices due to the tie-up.


Farmers Union Central Exchange in St. Paul said cooperatives, which handle 50% of the fertilizer sold in the area, ran out of dry nitrogen, which is shipped up from Donaldsonville, La. The Swift Agricultural Company, Meredosia, 111., ran out of ammonia.


Sixteen barges carrying lime to Chicago area steel mills were held up. Stockpiles of lime at the Chicago terminals were exhausted, forcing steel companies to truck lime from Detroit.


In St. Louis, a ship repair facility laid off 30 employees, while marine suppliers who sell fuel to the big towboats — which use 8,000 to 10,000 gallons a day each — felt the effects as the boats cut their engines.


Gasoline suppliers in Chicago and other communities in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota found they were cut off from refineries at Wood River and Hartford, 111., below Locks and Dam 26.


The Des Moines Register reported that C-F Industries at Davenport was unable to load 20 barges with a million bushels of grain.


Herbert R. Haar, associate port director, New Orleans, said, “If the situation were to have continued at Locks and Dam 26, it would have caused severe problems here, because 60% of what goes through Alton ends up in New Orleans.” Two days before Locks and Dam 26 reopened, 14 ships were lying at anchor in New Orleans waiting to load grain, at a total daily cost of $280,000.


In the wake of the crisis Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) drafted a bill designed to remove the stalemate in the controversy surrounding the replacement of Locks and Dam 26.


The opposition

Environmentalists, allied with the railroads, have so far succeeded in blocking the proposal by the Corps of Engineers to replace the deteriorating facility at Alton with a new dam and two 1,200-ft. locks.


The Alton facility was built in 1938 and is deteriorating. In 1969, plans for a new dam and larger lock, submitted by the Corps of Engineers, were approved by the Secretary of the Army.


Specifications were written and bids were taken, but one day before the bids were to be opened in 1974, a lawsuit was filed against the construction by a coalition of 21 railroads and two environmentalist organizations. As a result, an injunction was issued and the corps has put together a new, seven volume, 22-pound environmental impact statement, but it has yet to be approved by a federal judge.


On February 24, the corps issued a compromise report, calling for a new dam with a single lock, with provision for construction of a second lock if justified by further environmental and economic studies.


Compromise or cop-out?

With tonnage flowing through the Alton facility growing at the rate of 10% a year, and increasing river traffic and congestion upping transit time, water carriers considered the corps’ alternative solution more of a cop-out than a compromise.


“Limiting the transit capacity at one of the busiest intersections of the inland waterways system is like building a single runway to serve Chicago’s O’Hare Airport,” said James Randall, co-chairman of the National Committee on Locks and Dam 26. By the time the new dam with its single lock is completed, river traffic would be dangerously close to its 86-million-ton-per-year capacity, Randall said.


The point of view of the water carriers is perhaps best expressed by a recent editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:


Ecological fears

“For nearly two years, the Sierra Club, the Izaak Walton League, and other ecology-minded groups have been in bed with the railroads on this issue. The environmentalists claim the Army engineers would open the upper Mississippi to a vastly increased barge traffic, which would do irreparable harm to the riverbanks and to the quality of life in and along the Mississippi.


“The railroads, using their longstanding argument that barge lines using federally-improved waterways are unfair competition, claim they have a huge unused freight capacity which can take care of all the Midwest’s shipping needs, now and in the future.


Shippers’ grain chute

“The railroads’ position is contradicted by recent history. Year after year, the railroads come up short of grain shipping capacity at harvest time. Year after year they abandon or petition to abandon more miles of line serving agricultural regions. They willingly give up the short hauls and branch lines to trucks, but cling fiercely to the profitable long hauls while claiming they are being unfairly undercut by barges. They assert they have the capacity to meet shippers’ needs but consistently fail to prove it.


“With the U.S. producing record grain crops … and selling huge proportions of them overseas, expediting shipments to seaports becomes of vital importance. New Orleans is the greatest of these ports and the Mississippi River traffic is literally the grain chute of the nation. If the railroads have fallen short up till now, how can they expect to meet the greater needs of the future?”


Mondale’s bill

A primary concern of environmentalists is that the proposed new locks and dam at Alton is just the forerunner of a project to deepen the upper Mississippi channel. A key element of Mondale’s bill would withdraw the authority of the Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of deepening the channel above Alton without specific authorization from Congress.


Mondale’s bill also includes provision for replacing each acre of wildlife habitat inundated by the construction of the new facility.


Whether or not Mondale’s efforts will bear fruit remains to be seen. Water carriers remain apprehensive about the bill’s lack of specific authorization for a second lock at the proposed new facility. But the April crisis at Locks and Dam 26 has served to alert the public that a solution must be found quickly.


“The Mississippi cannot be preserved as some kind of wild or virgin river,” the editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press noted, “… it has not been that since the early days of settlement. It would be economically foolish, and ecologically naive, not to permit the river to function at least as effectively as it did a hundred years ago.”