In a normal month, about 1 million tons of coal, limestone and other commodities move through the Charleroi lock on the Monongahela River.
July has not been a normal month.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the Mon on July 16 to make necessary repairs to Charleroi's only functioning lock, built in 1937. A repair crew from the Corps' Neville Island repair shop is working around the clock on the $2.7 million project, which is scheduled to be completed Aug. 3.
Alongside the 51-person Neville Island crew, contractors are working on a much larger project: building two new locks that are part of a long-delayed, overbudget modernization involving three sets of locks and dams on the Mon.
When Congress authorized that project in 1992, it was supposed to be completed by 2004 at a cost of $750 million. But Congress, which provides half of the money for major construction projects, never provided the funds. A tax barge operators pay on diesel fuel pays the other half.
The limited funding has added two decades to the construction schedule and $1 billion to the costs.
At the current pace of funding, the project is now expected to cost $1.7 billion and will not be completed until 2033. By then, the original Charleroi lock will be nearly 100 years old.
"This place has to be here for 20 more years," said Alan Nogy, 34, Charleroi's acting lock master.
At most sites where the Corps operates locks, an auxiliary chamber allows the agency to take one lock down for repairs without closing a river. But at Charleroi, the auxiliary lock was closed in 2004 as part of the new construction project.
"If this chamber is down, the river is closed," Mr. Nogy said.
He is standing on the landside edge of the 720-foot-long and 56-foot-wide lock being repaired. About 7 million gallons of river water have been drained from it. Without the force of water in the lock to support the walls, 4-foot-wide tubes are wedged between them to prevent them from tilting inward.
Peering down into the 35-foot-deep concrete hole, Mr. Nogy sees about a dozen strips of armor that once lined the lock walls. Over time, barges scraped them away, sending them to the bottom of the river and forcing the Corps to patch scars left on the rim with concrete.
There's also about two dozen tires that blew past grating meant to limit the amount of river debris that makes it inside the chamber. Finally, a few small schools of fish lethargically mill about in about a foot of river water that's seeped through temporary dams erected to "de-water" the lock. Pumps remove the water coming in, allowing workers to perform the repairs.
Mr. Nogy said construction crews are replacing the sill that the lock's upriver gates sit on and repairing a portion of the sill used for the downriver gates. They are also repairing valves used to bring water into the lock and to empty it.
The Corps notified barge companies of the 19-day river closing in March to give them enough time to make contingency plans. The closure coincides with summer vacations that coal producers give to miners. Coal accounts for about 75 percent of the tonnage that moves through the Charleroi lock.
Mr. Nogy said more than 500,000 tons of cargo passed through the lock in the two weeks before it closed, a little more than half of the monthly average in recent years.
Consol Energy, one of the lock's biggest users, was among those who stepped up shipments.
"It certainly is an inconvenience, but we do our best to manage it," Consol spokeswoman Lynn Seay said.
Greer Limestone -- a Morgantown, W.Va., company that moves limestone and aggregates on the Mon, Ohio and Kanawha rivers -- "tried to do everything we could to front-load everybody," Vice President Brian Blankenship said.
"Once it opens up, it will be a slow process getting everyone through the lock," he said.
But one barge operator who moves goods for Greer said he will not be able to recover the business he is losing while the river is closed. John Fedkoe of TowLine River Service on Neville Island said he did not have enough barges to move more goods in advance of the closing.
"I can't make it up," he said. "You just sit back and wait for it to open."
Len Boselovic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1941. First Published July 29, 2012 4:00 AM