ST. LOUIS (AP) — Crews have completed the most critical phase of removing bedrock that threatened barges along a crucial stretch of the drought-starved Mississippi River, staving off the shipping industry's fears that the treacherous channel could close to traffic, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Saturday.
Using excavators and explosives, corps-hired contractors cleared 365 cubic yards of limestone and added two vital feet of depth to the channel near Thebes, Ill., about 130 miles south of St. Louis, the corps said. That phase, which began last month, addressed the most pressing threat to mariners and additional rock removal is expected nearby, the corps said.
"The river rock removal contractors executed their work quickly and efficiently in the primary areas of concern," said Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley division. "The work has deepened the channel enough to successfully maintain navigation though this critical reach of the river."
While averting a potentially crippling shutdown of the river, the work wasn't without its inconvenience to shippers. Barge traffic at that stretch has been limited to an eight-hour window each day, causing bottlenecks and slowing transit times of cargo as crews removed the jagged bedrock that threatened to tear barge bottoms to ribbons.
Still, the corps said Saturday, 630 vessels and 6,123 barges managed to make their way through during the rock extraction work.
Barge operators in recent days credited the corps' hustle in addressing the bedrock months ahead of schedule, keeping open the stretch on the river that's an artery used to move everything from corn to grain to construction materials and petroleum. The corps also has strategically released water from lakes into the Mississippi to raise the river in recent weeks, trying to blunt the effects of the worst U.S. drought in decades that has made the river narrower and shallower.