Rock blasting set on drought-plagued Miss. River

Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Newt Marine Inc. use excavators on spud barges to remove the top layer of the rock pinnacles beneath the Mississippi River north of Thebes, Ill. Monday morning, Dec. 17, 2012. Blasting of the pinnacles has been delayed until Tuesday. The river is open to traffic until 6a.m. Tuesday. (Laura Simon)

Barge operators along a key stretch of the Mississippi River on Monday braced for months of restricted shipping as crews prepared to begin blasting large rock formations that are impeding navigation on the drought-plagued waterway.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said contractors from Iowa and Ohio could begin demolition of the rock pinnacles in the bed of the Mississippi River south of St. Louis as early as today. They expect to remove enough rock to fill about 50 dump trucks -- possibly more.

Blasting originally was set to begin Monday morning, but the corps delayed that until today to allow a contractor, Newt Marine Inc., to continue using excavating equipment on top of barges in the river north of Thebes, Ill., where crews were having better success than expected removing a top layer of material.

Corps spokesman Mike Petersen said removing material with excavators will minimize the disruption of river traffic and the environment that blasting would cause.

The corps is overseeing the removal process while the U.S. Coast Guard will control river traffic. The project in the area near Thebes is expected to be complete within a few weeks.

The corps said beginning today a six-mile stretch of the river will be closed to shipping from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. to allow for the safe use of explosives. Barges seeking passage will have to line up and wait for an eight-hour window when the stretch will be open, with the Coast Guard essentially acting as a traffic officer letting barges through in one direction, then the other.

C.M. Fogarty, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard, said the guard, in conjunction with the corps, will use a vessel traffic management system to allow a very light flow of traffic on the river today.

The Coast Guard will determine what types of traffic to let through based on goods carried by a vessel -- those with perishable materials will take priority, Fogarty said.

Petersen warned Monday that spectators should stay well back from the blasting zone and also should stay off rock, sand and mud surfaces recently exposed by drought along the banks of the river for safety reasons.

Months of drought have left water levels as much as 20 feet below normal along a 180-mile stretch of the river from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., fanning concerns among barge operators that river use soon may be dramatically restricted, if it is not completely shut down.

The rock being removed typically would be beneath sand on the river bottom but has been exposed by the corps' dredging efforts to keep the channel open.

The demolition of the formations near Thebes coincides with an unusual move by the corps to release water from a Southern Illinois lake, adding a few inches of depth to a river that is getting lower by the day -- largely because of the lingering effects of the nation's worst drought in decades.

The project was initially to have begun in February, but was expedited at the behest of U.S. lawmakers from states along the Mississippi River.

Several of those lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, praised the corps' action Monday, but questioned the details.

"I am a little bit concerned we don't have a definitive timeline on when the project would be completed," Emerson said.

In a recent meeting with corps officials, Emerson said she was told river traffic would be impeded five to six weeks at a minimum, which was also dependent on weather.

She also said she appreciates the dredging activity the corps has performed so far, but doesn't feel enough has been done.

"They have been lackluster, in my opinion, with their responsibility for dredging, and that would help our inland ports," she said.

Emerson said she will continue to support further action by the corps, such as the release of water from the Missouri River, which could raise water levels on the Mississippi.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill also spoke Monday on removal of the pinnacles.

"The expedited timeline for rock removal is a step in the right direction, and I'm pleased that the corps is responding to my concerns," McCaskill said in an emailed statement. "But success won't come with the completion of the project -- it will come with the continued ability to commercially navigate the Mississippi River, and I'll continue to fight for the actions necessary to keep our barge traffic moving."

Staff writer Erin Ragan contributed to this report.

Pertinent address:

Thebes, Ill.

Map of pertinent addresses

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