Saturday, March 15, 1997
Barge business going down drain
'Transportation nightmare' shuts cozy loading area

As the Tristate recovers from its worst flooding in 33 years, Enquirer reporter Cameron McWhirter is following the waters downriver.

The Cincinnati Enquirer

MOUND CITY, Ill. - The swollen Ohio is causing a lot of anxious, late nights at the local offices of the Consolidated Grain and Barge Co.

And it's costing a lot of money.

The company added an extra shift - becoming a 24-hour-a-day operation - to load as many barges as possible despite flood problems. But rising waters have brought traffic and loading to a virtual halt.

''The flood is just a transportation nightmare right now,'' said Mike Sullivant, 41, the depot's merchandising manager. Like everyone at the depot, he has been pulling lots of overtime since the flood struck two weeks ago.

Consolidated, like hundreds of other barge companies along the Ohio, is watching profits rush down river with the speeding current.

Mound City is only about 7 miles from Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio finishes its 981-mile trek from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi.

Consolidated Grain's depot on the Ohio normally is a great place for business. It's strategically located. Railroads from Illinois farmlands come right to the company's two giant conveyor belts. The belts arch over the levee on four-story supports down to a dock that can load two barges at a time in good weather.

The location, also close to the Mississippi, is a perfect stopping point for barges coming from Consolidated's depots along the Ohio, the farthest being in Cincinnati's Riverside neighborhood.

Hub of heartland

In good times, it is here where much of the wealth of America's heartland - more than 350 million bushels of grain a year, plus tons of coal and other products - is loaded before shipping, via New Orleans, to ports across the world.

But the flood has caused havoc in Consolidated's operations.

With the flood cresting Friday, today and possibly Sunday, business won't soon be getting back to normal here. The river had been expected to crest here Friday and begin receding, but 6 inches of rain Thursday night prolonged the crest for several days, according to forecasters.

The Ohio, normally about 1.5 miles wide here as it joins the Mississippi, is now about 4 miles wide.

At Mound City and Cairo the river crested at 56.1 feet Friday, according to the National Weather Service. That is about 16 feet above flood stage but well below the 65-foot levee protecting the towns. Unfortunately the river is now far too high for the depot to efficiently load barges.

General Manager Jim Jolly said the depot normally loads about 100,000 bushels of grain and 50 train cars of coal or other supplies onto barges every day at this time of year. Loading a barge usually takes about three hours.

With the flood, the grain conveyor belt had to be shut down, and the other belt can operate only with a giant crane removing sections of the barge tops and workmen removing sections of the conveyor pipe. Mr. Jolly guessed that he was loading about 25 rail cars of coal a day, but it's taking seven to 10 hours to do one barge. Mr. Jolly has purchased grain from many farmers, but now he has no way to send it downriver. His storage elevator at Mound City, which holds 1.2 million bushels of grain, is full.

''It's really hurting us,'' said Mr. Jolly, 46. ''It's really going to have an economic impact along the river.''

Problem widespread

The problems aren't just in Mound City, where the Ohio is cresting. All of Consolidated's other depots on the Ohio, and almost all depots of other companies, have been severely hurt by the flood. Six of the depots now are shut down. The company's Cincinnati office, closed and swamped by the flood, is expected to reopen next week, Mr. Jolly said.

Mr. Sullivant said farmers in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio will soon feel the economic crunch of the flood if they haven't already. Every day that the barges can't load is another day the farmers can't get their product to market.

All of this news adds up to trouble for the string of small towns on this peninsula between the Ohio and the Mississippi - America, Mound City, Urbandale, Future City and finally Cairo. The towns are not scared of being flooded out; they all are protected by a miles-long levee topped off by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1959.

But the economies of these towns at the confluence of two great American rivers depend on agricultural commerce along the river. Mound City, population less than 800, has only two main employers - Consolidated and a depot run by Archer Daniels Midland.

''Our livelihood depends on the river,'' said Carl Bode, the local pharmacist and also a city alderman. Mr. Bode said few are worried about any serious flooding, but they do worry about commerce.

On top of the economic anxiety, river workers also worry about the growing danger of barges crashing into bridges and levees.

On Thursday, a tow lost control of a barge that struck the bridge at Old Shawneetown, Ill.

''Going down the river you can't go slow now,'' Consolidated's Mr. Sullivant said. ''You are flying. So barges are going to hit bridges.''