For now, excavating trumps blasting on Mississippi River

Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Barges with excavating machinery are seen working on the Mississippi River Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, in Thebes Ill. The Army Corps of Engineers is delaying the use of explosives to blast away treacherous rock pinnacles on the Mississippi River because crews are having so much success removing the rocks with excavating machinery. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

THEBES, Ill. -- The Army Corps of Engineers is delaying the use of explosives to blast away treacherous rock pinnacles on the Mississippi River in southern Illinois because crews are having success removing the rocks with excavating machinery, officials said Tuesday.

The corps has hired contractors to use explosives to remove the pinnacles that stretch over about six miles near Thebes, Ill. The river's water level is so low in the area between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., that barge traffic is threatened.

Blasting was scheduled to begin Tuesday, but corps spokesman Mike Petersen said excavation barges were removing so much rock that the explosions are on hold for now.

"It's like a backhoe on steroids," Petersen said as he watched the excavation from the shore. "It reaches down and basically scoops rock out of the river. It's just spooning it out right now."

Two excavation barges positioned on each side of a railroad bridge worked constantly Tuesday, backhoe arms digging deep into the river bottom, pummeling rock and pulling up the remains.

"It's a lot safer, a lot cleaner and a lot faster" than using explosives, Petersen said.

During the excavation work, a constant line of small boats from observing agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation launched at Thebes Landing, an RV and campground at a scenic crook of the river.

One small boat made a loud crunching sound just after entering the water, evidence of the rock endangering river traffic.

"We've seen a lot of boat propellers getting ruined there lately," Thebes Landing owner Neal Day said.

The area where the work is being done is closed to barge traffic except for a few overnight hours. Ryan Tippets of the U.S. Coast Guard said shippers are aware of it, so they're mostly avoiding the area.

By Tuesday, nine southbound tows were stacked up near Cape Girardeau and a couple of northbound tows were waiting their turn south of Thebes.

Petersen said the one benefit of the extraordinarily low river level is the ability to clean out the bottom of the river. Work being done now will prove beneficial if the drought persists, and Petersen said a multi-year drought is a real possibility.

"How many droughts have you heard of that only lasted one year?" he asked. "The Dust Bowl was 12 years. If this is a multi-year event, we'll be in better shape next December."

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