Shippers join river fight for barge trafficCommodities carried on big Mississippi River vessels total billions of dollars, waterways group says
By: ALAN BJERGA and JEFF PLUNGIS, Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON — Shippers and lawmakers are pressuring President Obama to declare a federal emergency along the Mississippi River, citing potential “catastrophic consequences” in the Midwest if barge traffic is curtailed by low water on the nation’s busiest waterway.
Lawmakers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute urged Obama to tell the Army Corps of Engineers to hasten the planned removal of submerged rocks near Cairo, Ill., that may impede barge traffic at low water levels. The corps also should stop its seasonal restriction on the flow of Missouri River water into the Mississippi, which it began last week, the groups said.
“We still got a lot of stuff to move down that Mississippi before winter totally sets in,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in an interview. “They can release more water, sure they can.”
Mississippi River barge traffic is slowing as the worst drought in five decades combines with a seasonal dry period to push water levels to a near-record low, prompting shippers including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. to seek alternatives. Computer models suggest that without more rain, navigating the Mississippi will start to be affected Dec. 11 and the river will reach a record low Dec. 22, said corps spokesman Bob Anderson, based in Vicksburg, Miss.
Barges on the Mississippi handle about 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports entering the Gulf of Mexico through New Orleans, as well as 22 percent of its petroleum and 20 percent of its coal. About $7 billion worth of commodities usually travel on the Mississippi in December and January, including $2.3 billion of agricultural products and $1.8 billion of chemical goods, according to the American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council Inc.
An emergency declaration would help by directing the corps to release more water into the Mississippi and remove rock formations south of St. Louis without following federal contracting practices that may delay action, Harkin said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday the administration has sought drought relief for farmers and referred questions about the emergency declaration request to the Corps of Engineers.
“We’ve been operating with the drought in mind all year,” said Michael Petersen, spokesman for the corps in St. Louis, who said there are no plans to change procedures. The river system “is multipurpose. It’s people’s water supplies, hydropower. We’re dealing with the hand we’ve been dealt, and we’ve prepared as best we can.”
Mississippi water levels may drop to an historic low next month, in part because of the Corps of Engineers. Last week, it started reducing outflows from the Missouri River, which joins the Mississippi at St. Louis, as part of an annual operating plan to ensure regions further north have adequate water. To mitigate its reduction of Missouri River flow, which started Nov. 23, the corps started releasing water from Minnesota and Iowa from the upper Mississippi on Nov. 20.