GRANITE CITY, Ill. — Shipping resumed Thursday through one of the Mississippi River's busiest locks, after crews completed emergency repairs that took days and that stranded hundreds of barges destined for points north or south.
By the time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reopened Lock 27 at Granite City, just north of St. Louis, at about 3:30 a.m. Thursday, the Coast Guard said the traffic jam had grown to 63 vessels and 455 barges — carrying enough cargo to fill 6,100 railcars or 26,400 large tractor-trailers.
Within a few hours of the lock being back in business, just six vessels pushing 80 barges had made it through the lock. The last of the idled barges — hauling everything from grains to coal, fertilizer and construction materials — were expected to clear that vital Mississippi River corridor in two or three days, Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said.
"While it may seem slow, it's actually quite a good pace given the dynamic nature of the river and the pure size of the vessels," he said.
Workers closed the lock Saturday after discovering that a protection cell — a rock-filled steel cylinder against which barges rub to help align them for proper entry into the lock — had split open, spilling enough of the rock into the river to obstruct passage.
That damage was on an unarmored section of the vertical protection cell that the barges don't typically make contact with because they're often 15 to 20 feet under water. But that portion has been exposed because the river's level has been lowered dramatically by the nation's drought, said Mike Petersen, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman.
The Army Corps has said the repair is temporary, and that the lock itself wasn't damaged.
The lingering drought has made the Mississippi narrower, leaving towboat pilots struggling to find a safe place to park their barges along the river as they waited out the repairs. Other barges parked at ports up and down the river, saving fuel instead of being caught up in the snarl near Lock 27.
Roughly half of the nation's farm exports pass through that lock, making its shutdown worrisome at a time growers throughout the Midwest are ramping up their harvests of corn before turning their attention to bringing in their soybeans.
Coast Guard and Army Corps officials estimate the closure of the lock, through which 73 million tons of cargo typically pass each year, stood to cost the shipping industry $2 million to $3 million a day in lost revenue.
"When you put a chokehold on Lock 27, it really affects the main artery through the American transit system," Fogarty said.
The trouble at Lock 27 is the latest barge-related headache brought on by the nation's worst drought in decades.
Just a year since the Mississippi rose in some places to record levels, traffic along the river sometimes resembling a slow-motion freeway at times has been brought to a crawl, if not a congested mess. Several lower stretches have been closed, and barges have run aground. Other times, towboat pilots have had to wait at narrower channels for a barge to pass through in the opposite direction before easing their own way through snarling traffic.
One estimate put barge industry losses at $1 billion the last time the Mississippi was this low, in 1988 — little wonder why the Army Corps has scrambled all summer to dredge, clearing shipping channels of silt and sediments while knocking down shallow spots.
To compensate, many barge owners now carry lighter loads, costing them more per ton to move cargo but also reducing chances of running aground as crews hustle to dredge silt and other sediments from the river to clear passages.