Army Corps closes Ohio River for critical lock repairs

At 8 a.m. Monday, the Army Corps of Engineers will close the McAlpine Lock and Dam in Louisville, Ky., to repair a cracked gate. The estimated two-week closure is expected to create a backlog of about 1,800 barges and 120 tow boats, with costs to industry as high as $14 million, says Ann Adams, vice president for corporate resources at the American Commercial Barge Line, one of the largest cargo transporters in North America.

The backlog resulting from the McAlpine closure is expected to have an impact on the entire Mississippi River transportation system, Adams says.

Senior Corps officials worry that the shutdown, the first in the history of the McAlpine lock system for emergency maintenance, is a harbinger as the agency grapples with a maintenance backlog affecting its critical infrastructure nationwide.

"I'm concerned about the water resources infrastructure in this country," says Maj. Gen. Carl Strock, who commands the Army Corps of Engineers. "We have not yet had a catastrophic failure of a Corps of Engineers project, and that, for us, is the Holy Grail. But I'll tell you what, we are mighty close. We are running closer and closer to that risk every day."

Divers inspecting the McAlpine lock in May discovered the structural problem at a gate that dates to 1961. "Our engineers wanted to shut down the river much earlier, but we made a very deliberate risk assessment [to determine] how far we could possibly push that off to allow industry and the river users to respond and build stockpiles and work around the closure," Strock says.

Those weeks of preparation were critical, says Adams. The Corps and the Coast Guard held meetings with industry officials, who have worked to accelerate shipments and stockpile critical materials. Jon Fleshman, a spokesman for the Corps' Louisville District, says 140,000 tons of bulk commodities pass through McAlpine lock every day. Coal, scrap metal, petrochemicals, grain and fertilizer are most reliant on the river for transportation.

"If you shut down the Ohio River [without advance preparation], the Northeast [electrical] grid goes down because all the coal-fired power plants in that valley depend on the steady flow of coal -- a flow that cannot be met by rail or truck," says Strock.

Many commodities cannot easily be shipped by alternative methods, Adams says. With one barge able to carry the capacity of 65 single tractor-trailer trucks, other shipping methods are not affordable or even physically feasible in some cases, she says.

Aluminum producers in the upper Ohio Valley, which depend on a just-in-time delivery system to meet production goals, are among the hardest hit, according to a report by the Waterways Council, which represents companies and public agencies with a stake in the inland waterway system. Some companies will be forced to lay off employees, according to the July 21 report, "Interim Report Study of the Effects on the Economy of the Upcoming Emergency Closure of the McAlpine Lock."

"This disruption to the economy from closure of the McAlpine Lock is a direct result of inadequate funding over several decades of maintenance and modernization of the vital national resource -- the inland waterways system," the report concludes.

The Corps has legal responsibility for maintaining inland waterways. Says Strock: "What I'm looking for is a mechanism to go back to decision-makers in the administration and Congress and say 'You've charged me with this responsibility, here's how I'm doing,' in a way that is responsible so they can make informed decisions and they understand the consequences of those decisions. We need to do it in a responsible way because there are a lot of demands on those resources."

McAlpine Lock and Dam, which was built in the 1960s and 1970s, is undergoing a lock replacement project but the new locks are not expected to be completed until 2008. The project, which was authorized in the early 1990s, has had numerous delays because of funding shortages.

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