Locked and Dammed: Neglect erodes river commerce
Deckhands unhook barges as the Consol Energy towboat Aliquippa drops off two jumbo barges carrying sand at the company's West Elizabeth terminal.
The Aliquippa approaches Consol Energy's West Elizabeth terminal.
On Nov. 9, 1985, a fleet of barges pushed by the flooded Monongahela River clogs the gates at the Maxwell Dam and Locks near Brownsville.
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This is the third of a four-part series.
There is a price to be paid for neglecting the nation's aging system of locks and dams, an economic engine in desperate need of a tune-up.
On the Monongahela River, the price tag could be as high as $1 billion annually if the breakdown of a lock or dam puts the river off limits to barges delivering coal to power plants, according to a study performed last year for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
About 500 miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, 18 months of delays caused by repairs needed at three troubled locks is expected to cost one utility alone $16 million, according to a company spokesman.
For farmers in the Midwest, a three-month lock failure would add $71.6 million to the cost of moving grain to markets, according to a Texas Transportation Institute study issued in January.
The impact that the failure of a dam like the 105-year-old one on the Monongahela at Elizabeth could have on water supplies is worrisome enough it has drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"It is not a far-fetched scenario. It can happen," said Joe Dinkel, executive director of operations for West View Water Authority, which serves more than 200,000 residents in the North Hills and Ohio River communities. The authority's Neville Island plant gets its water from a pool created by a Corps dam at Emsworth.
Two sources provide the money used to address an $8 billion backlog in repairing and replacing locks and dams on the nation's rivers.
Users fees are not one of them.
Barge operators pay a 20-cent per gallon tax on diesel fuel they use, which raises about $85 million annually. Taxpayers match that, making about $170 million available each year.
At a $170 million-per-year pace, it will take more than 22 years to generate the $3.8 billion needed to complete seven major projects already under way. Those include rehabilitating the Emsworth dam on the Ohio River and building new locks on the Monongahela.
Once that's done -- in the 2030s -- work could start on another $4.3 billion in projects that Congress has authorized but not funded.
Mr. Dinkel said short-term outages could be managed "through some creative engineering and logistical arrangements." But if a dam would be out of commission for a period of several years, "That would be very troubling to us," he said.
"It would put us in a bind for a protracted period of time."
The likelihood of a lock or dam being knocked out of commission for several months or longer has increased in recent years, as aging facilities along the nation's waterways have become harder to keep running and more expensive to care for. Efforts to build new locks and dams have been plagued by cost overruns measured in hundreds of millions of dollars and construction delays measured in decades.
And statistics indicate the Corps is losing the fight to keep the old structures working.
Unscheduled lock closures nationwide have spiked in recent years, particularly in Pittsburgh. Western Pennsylvania has some of the oldest locks and dams on the 11,000-mile inland waterway that the Corps maintains.
Moderate- and high-use locks in the Pittsburgh district were out of operation 2,255 hours in the fiscal year that ended in September, according to the Corps. That compares to 879 hours in fiscal 2010 and 1,441 hours in fiscal 2009.
More than 70 percent of the down time last year involved unscheduled closures, where unexpected mechanical, structural or hydraulic problems disrupted river traffic.
"Failures have been occurring and will continue to occur at an accelerated rate," said William Harder, a former navigation manager in the Corps' Great Lakes and Ohio River division who retired last year.
Mr. Harder estimates it would take at least three years to replace a broken lock on the Monongahela and a minimum of six years to replace a dam. If such drastic measures were required, the impact of a prolonged river outage might come as a surprise to consumers, who would pay the costs related to the outage.
Locks and dams make it possible to move about 550 million tons of coal, grain, petroleum and other vital commodities at a price more than $14 per ton cheaper than by rail or truck, according to a 2010 report by a Corps-industry task force.
Without the barges, more trucks would clog the nation's highways -- it takes more than 1,000 trucks to carry the coal that a standard 15-barge tow can move.
"Our river system and water system are really a key economic engine," said Dan Mecklenborg, of Ingram Barge, a Nashville, Tenn., barge operator.
Because the public doesn't really grasp the role rivers play in the economy, the Corps and industries that rely on the waterways find it difficult to generate support for repairing or replacing aging river infrastructure.
"We have a hard time explaining to John Q. Public how important the [water] transportation system is," said Martin T. Hettel, the American Electric Power manager responsible for moving coal on AEP barges to the Columbus, Ohio, utility's power plants.
He said barge operators are dealing with significant delays at the Markland lock on the Ohio River near Warsaw, Ky., 531 miles down river from Pittsburgh, because of structural problems there.
Mr. Hettel said one day in mid-February, AEP had 23 boats waiting to get through Markland. At the rate the system was moving, it would take the last boat in line two days or longer to pass through, he said.
The traffic jam was caused by the failure of gates on Markland's 1,200-foot-long main lock in 2009. That has forced barge operators to break up and reassemble tows of 15 barges so they fit into the 600-foot-long auxiliary lock.
Breaking up and reassembling a tow once it gets through the lock takes two hours or longer vs. the 45 minutes needed to move 15 barges through Markland's main lock. From July 11 through 9 a.m. Monday morning, barges waited an estimated 61,483 hours to get through Markland, said Stephen D. Little, president of Crounse Corp., a Paducah, Ky., barge operator. That's the equivalent of 2,562 days that boats sat in traffic instead of moving goods, he said.
One set of gates at Markland's main lock has been replaced, said Mr. Hettel. But problems with hinges on the other set and high water late last year will delay completion of the project until this summer. He said 18 months of delays caused by problems at Markland and two nearby locks will cost AEP an estimated $16 million.
"The cost of all these delays are absorbed by the consumer," Mr. Hettel said.
The impact of lock problems was real enough in 1985, when flooding caused barges to break loose and slam into the Maxwell lock in Fayette County, 61 miles up the Monongahela from the Point. That lock was closed for more than a month.
Press accounts said 1,500 miners at five nearby coal mines were laid off as a result. A less serious outage occurred at Maxwell five years later.
If problems close the Monongahela for an extended period of time, the 5 million tons of coal delivered by barge to U.S. Steel's Clairton plant annually would have to be moved by rail or truck. That would be more expensive and take more time, making the steelmaker's Mon Valley operations "significantly less competitive," spokeswoman Erin DiPietro said.
Coal producers, steelmakers and electric utilities are not the only industries relying on the nation's aging river infrastructure. About 90 percent of the corn and soybeans exported from Mississippi gulf ports get there by barge, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Barge is the cheapest form of transportation we have," said Laura Foell, who with her husband works a 900-acre farm in Schaller, Iowa.
A study commissioned by the United Soybean Board estimated a three-month lock outage would shift 5.5 million tons of grain from barge to rail, increasing transportation costs by $71.6 million, or $13 per ton.
Between 80 and 90 percent of those costs would be passed on to consumers, said C. James Kruse, of the Texas Transportation Institute, the Texas A&M University affiliate that conducted the study.
Institute researchers estimated a six-month closure of a lock on the Ohio would increase wholesale electricity costs by $130 million for consumers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
The Corps study that concluded the price tag for a one-year outage on the Monongahela could be as big as $1 billion was based on how much more it would cost to produce electricity and how much of those costs could be passed on to consumers and business.
It did not measure the ripple effects those increases would have on the broader economy.
The study indicates more than 21 million people would be affected. It assumed there would be enough rail cars and trucks to deliver coal to power plants, and that no brownouts or blackouts would occur.
A spokesman for FirstEnergy, which has 878,000 customers in Western Pennsylvania, acknowledged an extended outage would have an impact. He declined to speculate what it would do to the price of electricity.
"Many other factors also have the potential to affect the price of electricity in a region, particularly overall customer demand and the weather," FirstEnergy's Mark Durbin said.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the agency is assessing problems the failure of the locks and dam at Emsworth on the Ohio River would have on the region and how quickly measures could be taken to return conditions to normal.
A spokesman for Pennsylvania American Water, which serves 220,000 households and businesses in Western Pennsylvania, said treatment plants in Baldwin Borough, Elrama and Brownsville rely on the Monongahela River.
The Corps' dams create a pool of water deep enough for Penn American's intake valves to pump water out of the river. If a dam broke, the river would drop below the valves.
Pumps would be brought in to solve that problem, spokesman Gary Lobaugh said. The cost of those contingency plans is already built into the company's rates.
Mr. Lobaugh said Penn American is providing information on the issue to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is studying what would happen if a dam failed.
"We don't envision a scenario with the dams that would compromise the amount of available source water," Mr. Lobaugh said. "If we were to encounter such a scenario, measures such as mandatory calls for conservation by our customers would be enacted."
First Published March 20, 2012 12:00 am