Chicago shippers breathe a sigh of relief as rock removal begins in the Mississippi River

Low water is making part of the river nearly impassable

December 20, 2012

(WBEZ/Lewis Wallace)
Towboats docked below the Chicago Skyway.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started breaking up plates of rock in the Mississippi River Wednesday, bringing relief to Chicago-area businesses concerned about a possible shipping shutdown this winter.

A rocky curve in the river near Thebes, Ill. became almost impassable in mid-December.

“The barges can’t get through there, they’ll just tear their bottoms right out,” said Chicago tugboat owner John Kindra. His boats tow barges carrying steel, petroleum and grains up and down the Calumet River, and many of those barges pass through the Mississippi.

The water was already unusually low in November when a separate Army Corps district announced it would reduce the flow from a northern reservoir. The goal was to preserve that district’s water despite the continued drought conditions.

With less water coming in from the Missouri River around St. Louis, it seemed possible that a 180-mile stretch of the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis would be impossible to navigate by mid-December.

Kindra was among many who thought the situation was nearing an emergency. Barges have already reduced the weight they can carry due to the extremely low water levels south of St. Louis. If the  Mississippi River had become impassable for shipping, that would have meant relying on trains and trucks to transport the same freight.

After a power struggle that drew in congressmen and governors from interested states, the Army Corps agreed to expedite a project excavating rock formations around Thebes. 

“They did take some emergency steps and fast-track this, and this is a very good thing,” said Kindra.

As of Wednesday the excavation involved breaking up the rock with a giant jackhammer and shifting it to deeper parts of the river. Later, it could involve drilling through the rock and blasting it out with explosives. Rock removal is expected to be completed by the end of January.