Sediment shuts down Mississippi River

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Barge traffic on the Mississippi River was at a standstill for a second day Friday in both directions near St. Louis as crews scrambled to clear sediment crimping navigation along a stretch of the waterway.

Several barges were lined up, at times side by side, in a holding pattern near downtown St. Louis and were expected to spend the night there as dredging pressed on to the north, the Army Corps of Engineers' Mike Petersen said. The dredging, begun Thursday night, was to be suspended Saturday long enough for the cargo vessels to clear, he said.

The buildup of sand and silt — an accepted nuisance by barge operators making their living on the river — was blamed on strong crosscurrents Petersen said have caused various accidents on the river in recent days, including one involving a tugboat pushed into the riverbank on the Illinois side.

Those currents also were complicating dredging, Petersen said, suspecting the barrage of sediment may be fallout from silt and sand swept down the Missouri River during its recent flooding.

It was not immediately clear when the dredging would be complete.

Any slowdowns on the Mississippi tend to be closely watched, given the river's status as a major inland artery for moving millions of tons daily of everything from coal to grain and gravel, auto parts, building products and petroleum items, either from overseas or as exports shipped out of the U.S. through the Gulf of Mexico.

River shipping is considered efficient, with a typical inland barge's capacity 15 times greater than a rail car and 60 times more than a tractor-trailer, according to the American Waterways Operators, a trade group of barge, tug and tow industry interests.

Some barge operators shrugged off the river's closure as something that comes with the turf, along with the ice floes expected with the arrival soon of wintery weather and the occasional repairs done on the river's locks and dams.

"On a daily basis, there's probably a shutdown somewhere. It's something the entire industry is quite used to," said Steve Holcomb, the vice president of investor relations for Houston-based Kirby Corp., operator of the nation's biggest inland tank-barge fleet. "It's just part of operating on the Mississippi."

Holcomb could not immediately say whether any of Kirby's 825 barges or 240 towboats were caught up in the Mississippi's closure. But with Kirby doing 30 percent of its business on the Mississippi and its tributaries — the rest coming on the Gulf of Mexico's coastal waterways — he suspects the company is affected in some way.

"It's a nuisance for us, a slowdown for us," said Holcomb, whose company specializes in shipping petrochemicals and other liquids.

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