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Unexpected Demopolis Lock closure slows water traffic along Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (video)

February 12, 2024   CBS42

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DEMOPOLIS, Ala. (WIAT) – A viewer contacted CBS 42 worried about the shutdown of a lock system in Demopolis. He was concerned not enough attention was being brought to it as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is rushing to make emergency repairs to it.

CBS 42 went to find out how this unexpected closure happened and what it means to you.

Typically, the USACE schedules maintenance months, even years in advance. But when an emergency situation like this comes up, it’s all hands on deck, 24-7, to get it resolved.

For more than 80 years, Parker Towing Company has traveled the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to help customers move anything from steel to coal across Alabama and beyond.

Tim Parker III is the president and CEO of the company. He said the trip to and from Mobile takes about a week. With the Demopolis Lock being shut down, that trip is now one month because they must connect at the Mississippi River now.

“They load barges, and we move them to wherever they ask us to move them to,” Parker said. “What it means for our customers and for industry above Demopolis Lock is it takes a lot longer to ship their cargo, the costs have been increased greatly, and there’s a lot of uncertainty right now.”

This is uncertainty the USACE is feeling, too.

USACE Navigation Manager Chad Brumelow said it is the first time an emergency shutdown has ever happened along this waterway.

“Demopolis lock is one of the oldest on the system. A lot of our other locks are just as old or close to it, so it’s a concern seeing that we’re having such an extensive concrete failure,” Brumelow said. “We’re already making plans to do forensics on the concrete here and go to some of our other lock and dam facilities and check on some of the concrete — look for any excessive cracking and that kind of thing.”

On Jan. 16, the lock operator heard a loud noise and found water rushing under the miter gate, according to Brumelow.

“We hadn’t done any locking that day,” Brumelow said. “It was just kind of a sudden event.”

A lock helps to level out water at a dam for traffic passing through.

USACE Operations Manager Anthony Perkins said Demopolis is a vital lock along the waterway.

“Right now, it’s a mass concrete repair where we will be pouring over 2,000 cubic yards of concrete — a lot of concrete,” Perkins said. “Each lock ensures we can move traffic from an upper pool elevation to the lower pool elevation.”


Dr. James Cochran is an economics expert at the University of Alabama. He said if these companies have been putting in regular orders, everything should start to arrive back on track after a few weeks.

‘’They’ll still be ordering on a regular basis. They’ll just be receiving all those orders on the same delay,” Cochran said. “The tendency is for consumers when something like this happens is for consumers to start to panic and start to hoard, and that’s when you really have problems with prices and supply chains.”

Parker said one barge can carry the equivalent of 60 truckloads of coal. Without this means of transportation, companies may have to turn to trains and trucks.

“We’re not the only ones affected, so we’ve just gotta adjust and do our best,” Parker said. “We know that the Corps of Engineers is full of a lot of great people. They’re working hard.”

Brumelow said the USACE plans to inspect locks annually now instead of every five years.

“We are really upping our game to make sure that this doesn’t happen again and at the very least having a plan in place if something like this does happen,” Brumelow said.

If everything goes as planned, the USACE expects to reopen the lock by May, but that’s going to depend on Mother Nature and everything else falling into place along the way.