Sunday, August 12, 2001

Age catching up with Ohio River dams

They're small, costly and old.

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEVILLE — A barge inches downriver through the chamber of the Meldahl Dam, its black coal shining, its operator idling.

        Black is green in the coal business. Time is money. And on this recent afternoon, so humid and breezeless the barge's American flag sags like a dish rag, each hour creeping through the river lock costs barge operators about $500.

        The barge is the standard 105 feet wide. The 40-year-old dam's chamber is just 110. It's a tight fit.

[photo] Two barges pass Cincinnati on the Ohio River Saturday.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        This is the essence of the problem facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as it ponders the future of the 19 locks and dams on the Ohio River.

        Many of the dams are 50 years old, deteriorating and overburdened by the dramatic increase in the volume and size of commercial barges.

        Commercial traffic on the Ohio River “matters to the public's pocketbooks because it affects the price of virtually everything that's shipped,” said Tom Swor, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental team leader.

        He led a public meeting in Newport last week on how to solve the growing problems for Ohio's dam system. Expansions and additions, he said, are being considered. Expanding just one auxiliary chamber could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

        Demand, meanwhile, continues to rise. Commercial traffic on the Ohio has increased about 30 percent in the past decade, with coal by tonnage comprising 55 percent of all products shipped, according to the Corps' 1999 annual Ohio River Navigation System report.

        At Meldahl, which is 38 miles east of Cincinnati in southern Clermont County, it's 59 percent coal.

        That likely will increase if President Bush is successful in his program to address energy demands by increasing coal production. Much of it is transported from West Virginia to points throughout the Midwest via the Ohio.

The river and us
        “You can't live in the Ohio Valley and not be directly affected, in every way, by the Ohio River,” said John Hageman, an associate professor in the biology department at Thomas More College.

        “Think about it,” said Mr. Hageman, who attended the Corps' meeting in Newport. “So much is transported by the river. We drink the water, and it returns to the river. The river runs through us.”

        Delays cost businesses money. Consumers of everything from electricity to gasoline to construction equipment to flour pick up the check for those delays, often without realizing it.

        Even with the dramatic increase in costly delays, barge transport is still far more efficient than trains or trucks for moving large quantities of product.

        Waterways throughout the U.S. move more than 60 percent of the nation's grain exports each year and more than 2 billion tons of domestic and international freight, having a value of about $1.01 trillion, according to the Army Corps.

        And on the Ohio, coal is king.

        By weight, stone represents 18 percent of what's transported commercially; petroleum 7 percent, ores and steel another 7 percent, grains 6 percent, chemicals 4 percent.

        How much will the Corps — through taxpayers — pay to renovate or replace the 19 locks and dams along the 981-mile Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill.?

        That's the $43.5 million question.

        The Corps is spending that much for a comprehensive study — with public input solicited here last week — just to answer that question. The study also is examining ways to restore the river's damaged ecosystem.

        But the study could take several years, and in the meantime delays mount in the rivers locks and dams.

        “When we break 'em down because of repairs to the big chamber, they're lined up on both sides, for miles,” Meldahl lockmaster Jim Noble said. “On a clear night, it looks like a great big pinball machine of red and green lights.”

"Is it getting worse?'
        From 1989 to 1998, average lock delays doubled at Meldahl, from 25 to 50 minutes per tow, according to the '99 navigation system report. At Markland, about 30 miles downriver from Cincinnati, delays increased 75 percent, to 35 minutes.

        In the same period, the number of tows increased 25.3 percent at Meldahl, from 4,474 annually to 5,604.

        “Is it getting worse? Absolutely,” said David Hammond, vice president of Edgewood, Ky.,-based Inland Marine Services.

        Inland transports about 90,000 tons of product daily, most of it coal going to Cinergy.

        “And that loss is passed on to the consumer,” he said. “But they don't see it because they're removed. But they pay. And on any given day, we've got a boat somewhere delayed.”

        He knows Meldahl well, has high regard for Mr. Noble and the Army Corps, but has equally high concern for the deteriorating infrastructure that is costing him - and Joe Taxpayer - money.

        When Mr. Noble came to Meldahl in 1975, they averaged three to four commercial watercrafts per eight-hour shift. Today, it's eight to 10 commercial watercrafts.

        Barges, typically 1,185 feet long, take 45 minutes to an hour to get through the chamber, which shifts 30 million gallons of river water every turn.

A lifetime ago
        Most of the Ohio's locks were built in the 1950s and '60s — with a life expectancy of about 50 years. Meldahl was constructed from 1958 to 1961, when it opened to much fanfare.

        “It scares me to see the deterioration in the infrastructure,” said Mr. Hammond of Inland, which operates four boats on the Ohio. “On any given day, we've got a boat somewhere delayed.”

        The cost to upgrade the locks system will be in the hundreds of millions. The cost of not upgrading is incalculable, but ultimately, falls to consumers.

        Simple math is in play here. Locks and dams typically have a 1,200-foot-long chamber with walls that rise 50 feet high. Most, like Meldahl, have a similar 600-foot chamber for smaller craft.

        Back when the current system was being constructed, that was sufficient.

        No more.

        There is a cautionary tale in the September 1989 breakdown of the Myers dam 30 miles south of Evansville, Ind.

        The four-day closure cost businesses $15 million in lost productivity, “with some tows waiting four days at $400 an hour,” said Mark Lisney, a member of the Army Corps' Louisville-based economics team.

        The solution: expand the auxiliary to 1,200 feet.

        The price tag: $182 million.

        “Even if we can politically deal with all the challenges, with 10 years for some of these permits,” said Mr. Hammond, “then there's the actual construction, which takes 20 years.”

        Still, Meldahl inches forward with a plan to extend its 600-foot auxiliary chamber, Mr. Noble said.

        The expansion has been approved by the orps but, like so many other ambitious improvement plans, it remains unfunded. It is expected that the study will provide a time frame for the project.

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