Damaged Illinois River lock may hinder barge traffic for weeks

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A northern stretch of the Illinois River may remain closed to commercial shipping traffic for several weeks as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works to repair a lock damaged during recent heavy flooding, the Corps said on Thursday.

Flooding on the waterway has also halted the loading of corn and soybean barges at Illinois River terminals, which are delivery points for CME grain futures contracts. That prompted the exchange to declare force majeure at most terminals on Thursday.

About 60 percent of U.S. grain exports are transported via the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including the Illinois, from farm areas in the Midwest to export facilities at the Gulf of Mexico. The Illinois River disruptions considerably restrict the flow of grain from much of the No. 2 corn and soybean producing state.

The damage to the Marseilles Lock and Dam in northern Illinois suggests a portion of the waterway may remain closed well after flood waters recede.

"As soon as conditions permit, the Corps will perform engineering analyses for use in developing repair and recovery plans, ensuring that the dam can be returned to an operational status as soon as possible," said Tom Heinold, deputy chief of the Operations Division for the Corps' Rock Island district.

Five of the lock's eight gates, damaged last week when seven barges broke free from a tow in flood-swollen currents and struck the dam, are not able to close fully and maintain the pool of water above the dam.

As a result, the section of the river from Marseilles to the Dresden Island lock upriver was expected to drain and become too shallow for barges and boats as soon as this weekend, the Army Corps said.

"Probably beginning next week we're going to start emergency repair work to get a rock dike out there and get work started on those gates to get them functioning to at least maintain the pool," said Army Corps spokesman Ron Fournier.

"How much of the pool we're going to lose is not determined yet, but we're not going to be able to maintain the nine-foot depth pool," he said.

A 144-mile stretch of the waterway from mile marker 43.2 south of Florence, Ill., to mile marker 187.3 near Lacon, Ill., remains closed to all traffic due to record flooding, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Thursday.

Eight locks on the Mississippi River from central Iowa just north of St. Louis remain closed due to high water, but the river has largely crested and all locks were likely to reopen by early next week.

Lock 19 at Keokuk, Iowa, reopened on Wednesday and locks 16 and 18 at Muscatine, Iowa, and Gladstone, Illinois, could reopen on Friday, Fournier said.

The latest river forecasts from the National Weather Service suggest the rest, from lock 17 at New Boston, Illinois, to lock 25 in Winfield, Missouri, could reopen over the weekend or on Monday or Tuesday.

The shipping disruptions come just three months after record- or near-record-low water on the Mississippi River threatened to halt navigation along a key stretch between St. Louis and the confluence of the Ohio River.

Grain prices at export terminals at the Gulf of Mexico climbed this week to the highest level in at least a month as the closures severed the supply pipeline linking production areas with the Gulf export market.

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