Removal of rock pinnacles in dropping river progressing slowly

MISSISSIPPI RIVER — Crews scooping out Mississippi River bedrock in southern Illinois are making steady progress but have removed just a fraction of the rock pinnacles that are impeding navigation along a stretch of the drought-plagued waterway, an Army Corps of Engineers official said.

Excavating machinery had chiseled away 39 cubic yards of rock by Tuesday morning, less than 5 percent of the amount of pinnacles to be removed in coming weeks near Thebes, Ill., corps programs director Edward Belk told an inland waterways advisory board. One cubic yard amounts to a load three feet wide and deep.

Work started Sunday to remove the treacherous rock pinnacles along a six-mile stretch of the river where barge traffic is threatened because the river’s water level is so low between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. The pace of rock removal should pick up with a second contractor joining the effort.

“We really have a sense of urgency to get this done,” Belk said in an interview afterward. “While we’re pleased with the contractors’ work, we’re not satisfied with any of this until we get it all removed.”

So far, crews are using excavating machinery to remove pinnacles, described as six times harder than concrete. Belk said he anticipates that explosives will eventually be used.

The emergency rock removal work is expected to continue until mid-January, Belk said.

The work stretches from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. while the stretch of river is closed to shipping. Barges seeking passage line up for the eight-hour window when the stretch is reopened, with the U.S. Coast Guard essentially directing traffic, letting barges through in one direction, then the other.

The rock being removed typically would be beneath sand on the river bottom but has been exposed by the corps’ dredging efforts to keep the channel open.

Larry Daily, chairman of the Inland Waterways Users Board, said he was pleased with the corps’ efforts, noting the project was initially planned to start in February.

“Thirty days ago they were still in the mode of ‘Well, we’re going to wait and go through the normal procurement process, it will be 75 days before the contractor can start.’ And we changed that,” Daily said afterward. “If we could figure out how we did that and do it again, I’d like to bottle that.”

The rock removal project was expedited at the urging of lawmakers and others from Mississippi River states. The industry-based advisory group headed by Daily makes recommendations to Congress and the Army secretary on priorities for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

When the emergency project ends in mid-January, it will be followed immediately by work to widen that same stretch of channel by removing additional rock to make it safer for vessels, Belk said. The corps expects to award that contract next month, he said.

The work comes as the middle Mississippi River approaches historic lows due to months of drought. The situation was worsened last month when the corps cut the outflow from an upper Missouri River reservoir, further reducing the amount of water flowing into the Mississippi.

Besides rock removal and dredging, the corps also has allowed some lake releases into the Mississippi to add to the waterway’s depth. Belk told the advisory group that there’s one more key part of the strategy: “Pray for rain.”

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