Barge accidents rise on flood-swollen Mississippi River

Overland flooding in Missouri on Jan. 1. (Steve Zumwalt photo courtesy FEMA)

Chicago | Reuters –– The U.S. Coast Guard temporarily halted shipping traffic on the Mississippi River in New Orleans on Friday after a tow boat struck stationary barges in a fleeting area, marking at least the fifth barge accident this week on the flood-swollen river.

High water has severely restricted barge shipping traffic on the river and several tributaries since a late-December storm slammed the central U.S.

The rivers have been closed to navigation at various points since the storm as floodwaters flow south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Shipping restrictions remain in place on much of the lower Mississippi, including limits on the number of barges per tow, specific navigation times and minimum tow boat horsepower requirements.

“The Coast Guard works very closely with the Army Corps of Engineers and the inland marine towing industry to manage the elevated navigation safety risks associated with the strong currents noted during high river stages,” said U.S. Coast Guard Captain Timothy Wendt.

The waterways are key arteries for shipments of grain, coal, oil and other commodities. Some 60 per cent of all U.S. corn, soybean and wheat exports exit the country via the Gulf Coast.

The tow boat Lucia struck several stationary barges early on Friday near the Crescent City Connection Bridge and six barges broke free, the Coast Guard said. All have been recovered and secured and the river reopened to navigation.

A barge tow hauling ethanol struck a highway bridge in Helena, Arkansas, on Monday, resulting in 292,000 gallons of the biofuel spilling into the river, the Coast Guard said.

From Tuesday to Thursday, barge tows hit the same railroad bridge in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on three separate occasions. Barges broke free and sank in two of the incidents.

Although the river problems caused headaches for shippers, the impact on grain shipping costs was muted by the current sluggish pace of exports from the U.S., industry sources said.

“The grain pipeline is running at half-speed at best, but we’re not seeing it in the rates because exports are so slow,” said a barge broker.

The river crested at more than 50.2 feet in Vicksburg on Friday, within seven feet of a record, according to the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service.

In New Orleans, the river crept up to flood stage on Friday and is expected to remain at that level through at least through the middle of next week.

Karl Plume reports on agriculture and ag commodity markets for Reuters from Chicago. Additional reporting for Reuters by Vijaykumar Vedala in Bangalore.

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