THEBES, Il. - Workers contracted by the Army Corps of Engineers clear rocks from the river floor near Thebes, Il., Dec. 17, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo

THEBES, Il. – Workers contracted by the Army Corps of Engineers clear rocks from the river floor near Thebes, Il., Dec. 17, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo

By Brian Wingfield

Emergency work to deepen the Mississippi River shipping channel will avert a shutdown of barge traffic this month, lawmakers said as operators began increasing their cargo loads on the nation’s busiest waterway.

“We’re back, moving up here,” Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations LLC of St. Louis, said today in an interview in Thebes, Illinois, where rock obstacles threatened to jam traffic on the river.

Expedited dredging and rock removal, combined with a warming trend and anticipated rainfall, will maintain at least a 10-foot river depth near Thebes through this month, Major General John Peabody, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley division, said today. He didn’t offer a forecast beyond Jan. 31. The river is about 11 feet deep at Thebes, officials said.

The Mississippi in a typical January carries as much as $2.8 billion in cargo, including grain, coal and crude oil, according to the American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group. The U.S. Army’s emergency steps include dredging and removing rock obstacles in the river between Illinois and Missouri.

Corps and U.S. Coast Guard officials briefed lawmakers including Senator Richard Durbin and Representative William Enyart, both Illinois Democrats, today at the Thebes courthouse overlooking the river, which has receded during the worst drought since the 1930s. Enyart said emergency steps probably will be enough to prevent halting all shipping on the river.

Thebes Dredging

“I think we’re going to weather this storm,” he said after a tour of the river by boat to examine excavation work.

Dredging and rock removal near Thebes will continue through this month, according to Peabody. By the end of the week, the channel will be at least two feet deeper, providing about 10 feet of water to accommodate vessels, he said. Contractors are still working to widen the river at several bends in its course.

The steps mean barge operators can once again use towboats that require at least 10 feet of water and add cargo to barges. AEP River Operations, which doesn’t own boats that can operate in shallower depths, on Jan. 4 resumed operations near Thebes and will move as much as 350,000 tons of cargo downriver from St. Louis in the coming weeks, Hettel said

The work doesn’t mean that shipping is completely back to normal, Hettel said. An AEP customer may need to use rail, a more expensive option than barge travel, to move a product at least part of the way from New Orleans to Chicago later this year, he said without identifying the company or cargo. A decision needs to be made by the end of January, Hettel said.

Within two weeks, contractors will begin moving to a stretch of river near Grand Tower, Illinois, to begin the next stage of rock removal, Peabody said.

“We have a very positive outlook for the next few weeks,” he said at today’s briefing.

Copyright 2013 Bloomberg.

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