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 Doug Cameron

One of the largest barge operators on the Mississippi River said Thursday that emergency rock blasting and recent rainfall have improved conditions that had forced shippers to curtail traffic because of low water levels.

The rains and the blasting of bedrock in a shallow section by the Army Corps of Engineers have lifted the threat that the key transport artery for grains and other farm products, petrochemicals and aggregates could be completely closed to traffic.

Greg Binion, president of Houston-based Kirby Corp. (KEX), said Thursday the first part of the rock removal was almost complete, with the final phase due to be finished in early February. The Army Corps said this week the new work at Grand Tower, Ill. would take about 10 days.

Severe drought has affected river levels since last May, and left a stretch between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill at just half its usual depth at this time of year, forcing barges to carry less cargo and triggering traffic jams as vessels lined up to transit.

Mr. Binion said on a call with analysts that the rock removal would allow Kirby’s barges to carry more cargo over the stretch, and voiced confidence that recent and expected rainfall would allow normal operations from the second quarter of the year onwards.

Kirby said low river levels hit revenue and inflated costs as it loaded lighter cargo and took longer to move goods, especially upriver.

The Mississippi problems and superstorm Sandy wiped an estimated two to three cents a share from fourth quarter profit, which rose to $58.6 million from $56.8 million a year earlier. Per-share profits rose to $1.03 from $1.

Kirby, which operates barges and repair facilities on the Gulf and East Coasts, forecast full-year earnings would rise to between $4.00 and $4.20 in 2013, compared with $3.73 in 2012.

Its shares were recently up 6.1% at $70.58.

Copyright © 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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