* Army Corps meets with elected officials, industry members
* Water released from Illinois lake to boost river
* White House helped speed up hiring for river work
* Shipping group warns river will still close by year's end
(Adds details on blasting, comments from Coast Guard, shipping
By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO, Dec 17 The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
projects no "significant interruption in navigation" on the
Mississippi River due to low water levels, U.S. Senator Dick
Durbin said on Monday.
However, shippers remained nervous about the potential for
The Army Corps briefed Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the
Senate; other elected officials; and members of the agricultural
industry in East Alton, Illinois, on Monday on its efforts to
keep the river open following the worst U.S. drought in more
than 50 years.
Some shippers of grain, coal and steel have worried the
river will close to navigation on a busy stretch between St.
Louis and Cairo, Illinois, due to low water. Declining water
levels have already forced barge tows to lighten loads or risk
However, expected rains plus water that is being released
into the river from a lake in southern Illinois should keep open
the critical route to the Gulf of Mexico, Durbin said in a
telephone interview after the meeting.
"There's no anticipated closure of the river," said Durbin,
who plans to ask the Army Corps for an update on the situation
after the end of the year.
The river and its tributaries are critical for commerce
because they draw on a region that produces 90 percent of U.S.
farm exports, which are key for the U.S. balance of trade. Sixty
percent of grain exports go through New Orleans.
The Army Corps has been dredging the river to aid
transportation and has identified other dredging ships that can
be used if necessary, Durbin said.
During the weekend, it began releasing more water into the
river from Carlyle Lake in southern Illinois. That move is
projected to raise the river by six inches at Thebes, Illinois,
by Dec. 24.
Rain or snow expected in the Midwest next week also should
help increase water levels, particularly if snow melts in the
upper Midwest soon, said John Dee, meteorologist for Global
Thebes, located about 130 miles southeast of St. Louis, is a
key location where rock formations can damage barges when water
levels drop too low.
The Army Corps has started demolishing hazardous rock
pinnacles along a 15-mile stretch of river near Thebes to aid
U.S. President Barack Obama helped speed up the hiring of
contractors by the Corps to blast the rocks when he discussed
concerns about the river during a meeting last week, Durbin
Initially, the Corps warned it might not be able to hire
contractors until February or March, U.S. Representative Jerry
Costello, who attended the briefing with Durbin, told Reuters.
Costello is a Democrat who, like Durbin, is from Illinois.
"In a week's time, the Corps has felt some pressure from
above, and they have started work much earlier," said Ross
Prough, an at-large director for the Illinois Soybean
Association and another attendee at the briefing. "We're
certainly pleased with that development."
The Coast Guard will close the river at Thebes from 6:00
a.m. Central (1200 GMT) to 10:00 p.m. for safety reasons during
the blasting, restricting barge traffic. One-way traffic will be
allowed to pass overnight.
Vessels will be allowed to pass on a first-come first-served
basis, although vessels with urgent shipments may be given
priority. The Coast Guard has moved a mobile command center to
the Thebes region to manage river traffic through the area.
"We are expecting a queue to develop but we don't exactly
know how long the queue will get," said Lt. Colin Fogarty,
public affairs officer for the Coast Guard's upper Mississippi
It was unclear how long the rock-removal project would take.
Durbin said it would likely last three weeks to four weeks,
while the Army Corps said it would be finished before the end of
Despite the actions by the Corps, the American Waterways
Operators said the river will "be effectively closed to
navigation" by the end of the year unless water is released from
the Missouri River.
The rock removal and release of water from Carlyle Lake are
"really just delaying the inevitable," A merican Waterways
sp okeswoman Ann McCulloch said.
Drought conservation steps have cut water flow into the
Mississippi River from upriver dams on its tributary the
Cities and towns along the Missouri River, including Omaha
and Kansas City, rely on the river for drinking water. Three
nuclear power plants in Nebraska and Missouri also use river
water for cooling.
Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn
Growers Association, also expects the river will effectively
shut due to low water.
"There's only so much the Corps can do without more rain,"
(Additional reporting by Karl Plume; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe,
Lisa Von Ahn and Bob Burgdorfer)