Repairs to Shut Down
by Kevin McCullen
Industries that rely on barges to move their products on the Snake and Columbia rivers are bracing for the closure of navigation locks at dams beginning late this year.
Aging lock gates at three dams are deteriorating and must be replaced. That requires what the Army Corps of Engineers calls an "extended outage" expected to start in December and continue for 14 weeks.
Regular annual maintenance also will be performed at other dams in the Columbia-Snake river navigation system during the outage, Corps officials said.
Planning for the project began several years ago, with Corps officials working with navigation industry interests to allow them plenty of time to plan for the outage, said Gina Baltrusch, spokeswoman for the Corps' Walla Walla District.
"This is going to be one of the largest nautical closures of this kind that we have had in this country," said Glenn Vanselow, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. PNWA's members include public ports, navigation, transportation, international trade, tourism, agriculture, forest products, energy and local government interests.
"It (the outage) will cause some degree of hardship, but the work will provide 50 more years of reliability (at the dams) and ensure the long-term viability of the Columbia-Snake river system for transportation," he said.
The Corps plans to replace gates on locks at Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River and John Day and The Dalles dams on the Columbia. Locks at McNary, Lower Granite, Ice Harbor, Little Goose and Bonneville dams also will closed for maintenance during the outage period.
Work is projected to start Dec. 10 with replacement of the gates at the three dams. The Corps' current timetable calls for the locks to reopen in late March 2011.
Rather than schedule separate outages for each dam, Vanselow and Corps officials said scheduling work at one time will minimize inconvenience to shippers.
"The reality of the situation is if we don't take these few months to make these repairs, the facilities will eventually become unsafe to use," Margie McGill, Corps project manager, said in a statement.
At Lower Monumental, the downstream lift gate shows structural fatigue and fractures, according to the Corps. A Spokane firm, Dix Corp., last year was awarded a nearly $13 million contract to fabricate, deliver and install a gate measuring over 87 feet wide and 84.5 feet high, the Corps said.
The downstream lift gate at John Day will be replaced and other work done with $16 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, according to the PNWA. No estimate of the cost of replacing the downstream miter gate and other repairs at The Dalles was immediately available.
A range of industries, from grain to petroleum and wood products, use the river system to transport goods. In calendar year 2008, the Corps said, 4,871 short tons of freight moved on the Columbia to or from Kennewick, and another 3,701 short tons went up or down the Snake River system from its mouth to Johnson Bar Landing in Hells Canyon.
The PNWA estimates $1.5 billion to $2 billion of cargo moves on the river system during a typical year, Vanselow said. About 20 percent of the cargo in a typical year would move during the period of the outage, he said.
Grain is the top commodity shipped by barges on the river, Vanselow said, and the Columbia-Snake river system is the top export gateway for U.S. wheat.
Growers could decide to sell their crop earlier and see it moved downstream to buyers before the outage, or opt to store it at elevators. Some grain elevators below The Dalles are expecting to be at capacity, while other operators are expanding to store more grain, Vanselow said.
Petroleum products, including gasoline and heating oil, also are shipped upriver. Shell, Chevron and Tesoro are three of the oil companies that deliver their gasoline to the Tri-Cities by barges, said Rod Smith, treasurer and vice president of wholesale fuels for R.H. Smith Distributing Co. of Grandview.
Gasoline also is delivered to the Tri-Cities area by truck and via pipelines that terminate in Moses Lake or Spokane. Oil companies will have had plenty of time to prepare for alternative methods of fuel delivery locally by the time the outage occurs, Smith said.
"The driving public should not notice a difference," Smith said.
How many companies will be affected by the outage and how they plan to cope with it isn't known. Some industries may shift to truck or rail to move products during the outage.
"A wide range of folks could be touched by this, and some might not at all," Vanselow said. "It'll be interesting to see how much the man on the street notices."
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