Tuesday, July 27, 2004

River shutdown for lock repairs will back up barges

The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - Barges could stack up along stretches of the Ohio River next month when they're idled by repair work on a river lock, officials said Monday.

Work on McAlpine lock will shut down river traffic for two weeks beginning Aug. 9, so workers can fix its cracked steel gates. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to reopen the lock Aug. 22, allowing barges to again traverse the length of the river from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill.

The closure could stall as many as 100 tows pushing long strings of barges, said W.N. Whitlock, president and chief operating officer of American Commercial Lines of Jeffersonville, Ind.

Col. Robert A. Rowlette Jr., commander and district engineer of the corps' Louisville district, said the stalled tows could be spread out along nearly 190 miles of the river - from between Louisville and Cincinnati to near Tell City, Ind.

Many of the vessels are expected to sit out the closure at mooring facilities along river, Whitlock said at a news conference at McAlpine lock.

Whitlock said the shutdown would be costly for the barge industry but didn't offer an estimate. He said that every hourly delay for a tow costs the operator $300 to $400.

Locks along the Ohio River serve as stairways that allow boats and barges to navigate the 981-mile-long waterway's changing elevation.

The Corps of Engineers notified barge operators in May of the shutdown for the $1 million repair project. Still, it could put a strain on industries unable to stockpile materials, Whitlock said.

"Most people are operating on a just-in-time inventory system, so when you have a disruption in that logistics flow, it creates problems all the way through the logistics chain," he said.

About 140,000 tons of goods pass through McAlpine lock daily, according to the corps.

To continue the flow of materials, some companies will have supplies transported by truck, Whitlock said.

Once the repair work is finished, it will take at least a week to end the logjam of tows waiting to get through the lock, he said.

Rowlette said the closure for maintenance couldn't be avoided.

The cracks were found during a routine inspection by divers in May. The biggest crack is 15 to 18 inches long. Without the repair work, the crack will grow and could jeopardize that gate, Rowlette said.

"The gate has the potential, if it cracks severely enough, to literally fall off the hinges," he said.

In past years, barge traffic along the Ohio River has been shut down for extended periods by floods and ice.

Workers will drain tens of millions of gallons from the 1,200-foot-long, and 110-foot-wide lock, a process that will take two or three days, Rowlette said. Inspectors then will check the gates.

Workers will weld together the cracks and insert metal plates to reinforce corners of the lock's doors, Rowlette said.

Coast Guard Cmdr. John Bingaman said the stalled barges should not impede recreational boaters. The Coast Guard will monitor the situation to make sure the tows pull up in appropriate spots, he said.

Traffic has picked up at McAlpine in recent weeks as barge operators hurry to meet customers' demands before the shutdown.

Generally, about 14 tows pass through McAlpine daily, but in recent weeks, about 20 have come through each day, Rowlette said.

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