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Choke Point of a Nation: The High Cost of an Aging River Lock


Luther Helland stood on a platform in the middle of the river and surveyed his dam. It was in bad shape. Several of the panels that kept the water back were missing, while others were out of true. Weeks of work stretched before him, compounded by the vagaries of the river.

Mr. Helland, 37, is master of Lock and Dam No. 52 on the Ohio River. That makes him responsible for billions of dollars’ worth of cargo and the operation of countless factories, power plants, farms and refineries east of the mighty Mississippi. By extension, then, he is responsible for the livelihoods of millions of Americans.

Built in 1929, Lock No. 52 sits in a quiet corner of southern Illinois that happens to be the busiest spot on America’s inland waterways, where traffic from the eastern United States meets and passes traffic from the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River. More than 80 million tons of grain, coal, fuel and other goods — worth over $22 billion — move through here each year.

“It wouldn’t seem like it, but this is more stressful than when I was in the military,” said Mr. Helland, a farm boy from Wisconsin who worked as an Army welder and machinist in South Korea before he took this job.
Bottlenecks on the River

More traffic passes Locks and Dams 52 and 53, located near the mouth of the Ohio River, than any other spot on the inland waterways. Built in the 1920s and now showing their age, both locks will be replaced by the Olmsted Locks and Dam, which is decades behind schedule and billions over budget.

Lock No. 52 is a serious bottleneck in innumerable supply chains nationwide. It is emblematic of the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure coast to coast — including locks, ports, highways and railroads. President-elect Donald J. Trump has said he will spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, but how the money will be raised remains unclear. To avoid raising taxes or increasing debt, his plan calls for much of the money to come from the private sector, with a proposed tax credit offered in return. Funding might also come from taxes on repatriated money, as companies receive incentives to return cash that they have been accumulating overseas.

Even with a tax credit, though, companies building roads or locks would want a return on their investment — most likely in the form of toll collection, said Mike Toohey, president of the Waterways Council, an advocacy group for the river shipping industry. His industry is “not in favor of a toll,” he said. Still, he is optimistic that spending on inland waterways will increase under a new administration.

The average delay at No. 52 in October and November was 15 to 20 hours. At the moment, No. 52’s sister dam downriver, No. 53, is adding 48 more hours to the wait.

Dealing with both dams, it can take five days to travel just 100 miles on this stretch of the Ohio River. And if something goes wrong at either one — which does happen — the delay can build to a week or more. On Sept. 14, for instance, all river traffic stopped for an additional 15 hours while emergency repairs were made to No. 52’s dam.

No. 52 and No. 53 have been waiting to be blown up since 1998, when a new mega-dam near Olmsted, Ill., was supposed to be finished. Authorized in 1988, the project is now wildly over budget and decades behind schedule. What was supposed to cost $775 million and be finished in 1998 will now most likely cost $2.9 billion and be operational in October 2018 at the earliest.

Gridlock at the Dam

Capt. David Stansbury was in the pilot house of the towboat William Hank, which was tied to a fleet of barges near Metropolis, Ill., waiting for its turn to pass through 52’s lock. “What would happen if both lanes of Interstate 95 were completely shut down for three or four days?” he asked. “You’re talking total gridlock in a major metropolitan area — this is the equivalent of that.”

Right now, the inland waterways are out of most Americans’ sights and minds. “If 52 does fail, or one of the other locks fails, and you cut off half the United States from their barge traffic, then you’ll see a public outcry,” Mr. Stansbury said. He explained: If corn cannot get to the factories, the price of any grain-based product will go up, and people will say, “What do you mean I’ve got to pay $10 for a box of cornflakes? Are you out of your mind?”

A towboat and its barges need at least nine feet of water to stay afloat. To guarantee this depth from, say, Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill., a distance of 980 miles, the United States Army Corps of Engineers built dams. The dams make pools. Each pool is like a step, climbing from sea level to the Appalachians, say, or St. Paul. To get from one step to another, boats use water elevators, called locks, that raise anything that floats from one pool to another. Before the locks and dams, many rivers in the United States were low enough to walk across during dry months.

On an overcast September morning, the William Hank was pushing 13 barges — two tankers of soybean oil, one barge of dry cement, one barge of aluminum ingots, three barges of scrap steel, four barges of iron ingots, one barge of wheat and one of grain — a total of 19,200 tons of cargo, worth around $6.5 million. Most towboats push a 15-barge tow, which holds the equivalent of 225 train cars or 1,050 truckloads. There is a lot at stake when this much stuff is late.

In a low orange-trimmed building on the outskirts of Paducah, Ky., are the offices of Tennessee Valley Towing, which owns the William Hank. Gordon Southern, the company’s senior vice president, calculated that the 15-hour river closure on Sept. 14 cost him around $80,000. His company is just one of dozens.

“We call that bleeding,” said Harley Hall, Tennessee Valley Towing’s vice president for operations. “If 52 failed, all that tonnage that passes through here each way, it would have to move on rail and road, and the rail cars aren’t there and there’s no room on the highways. There’s no way to bypass this.”

Domestically, trucks moved five times as many goods, by weight, as ships or barges did in 2013. Trains moved twice as much as was moved via water, and planes moved far less. But 72 percent of all international trade moved via water in 2014, compared with 10 percent by truck, 5 percent by rail, and less than 1 percent by air. Many supply chains rely on multiple modes of transportation, and no single mode has enough redundancy to accommodate the goods of another.

“The corps does so much with so little,” Mr. Hall said. “This is the hub, holding all the spokes together,” he said of No. 52, but “until Olmsted is completed we have a ticking time bomb,” referring to the dam under construction in Illinois.

Bubble Gum and Duct Tape

The corps, an agency within the federal government, decided to build Olmsted with an experimental “in the wet” construction method: Hollow sections of the dam are built on the bank, skidded down to the river, towed into position and lowered into the water, where they are filled with concrete. Traditionally, a project like this would have used a coffer dam — a small temporary dam that keeps water out of the site while construction goes on in the dry.

The “in the wet” method was supposed to save time and money and minimize delays, but it did the opposite. By the time the corps realized its folly, it was too late to alter course. The novel construction process and inadequate congressional funding, among other things, have dragged the project past the quarter-century mark.

Olmsted has been under construction for so long that the company contracted to build it has been bought and renamed three times, the new locks at the Panama Canal — Olmsted’s global equivalent — have been begun and finished, and grandchildren of the early workers have been hired. Meanwhile, the old locks and dams are costing the country $640 million a year in delays and closures, according to the Army corps.

Little has changed at No. 52 and No. 53 since 1929. Each dam is made of over 400 steel or oak panels, called wickets, that sit in the river and hold back water. When the river is high — about 40 percent of the year for No. 52, more for No. 53 — the wickets can be lowered to the river bottom to let boats pass above them.

When the water goes down, a steam-powered crane from 1937, with a boiler the size of a car, is towed out into the river. A worker reaches into the seething current with a 20-foot steel hook and feels around for an 18-inch bar. When he has hooked it, the crane grabs the end of the hook, pulls the wicket up, and the force of the current sets it in place. This is repeated until all the wickets are up, which might take 24 hours.

“This is all farmer work,” said Mr. Helland, the lockmaster. “If you grew up on a farm, what’s in your back pockets? Either a pair of pliers or a hammer — that one tool you always use to fix everything with.” He sat on the steps of the old white frame house, on a hill above the lock, that serves as his office. “The lock is kept going with all the bubble gum and duct tape we’ve got left,” he said, but “we’re running out. She’s deteriorating so fast it makes it hard to keep up.”

The corps has identified 25 failure points at No. 52 and No. 53 — things that are on the verge of breaking, and shutting the locks down. Both are built on wood pilings driven into the river bottom sand. The lock walls are cracking and sagging, the hydraulic pipes are paper thin, concrete is crumbling, metal is rusted through, railings are gone, and seals are leaking.

Mr. Helland worries about his dam every day. Last year, a family of six drove their pleasure boat down the spillway and four people died. Recently a contractor hit the dam and broke another wicket (cost: $20,000), adding a two-wicket hole to many one-wicket holes and a four-wicket hole. Each hole makes it harder for the dam to hold back water. After the contractor crash, the smaller lock chamber was shut for a few days because pipes carrying hydraulic fluid to the gate were leaking and about to burst.

“These are old backbreaking places,” said Randy Robertson, the 51-year-old master of Lock and Dam No. 53. “Trying to keep these things going, it’s a struggle every day. We work a lot of overtime just to try and maintain junk — and that’s what it is. There are things we can’t get parts for anymore. You can’t just go to a boat store or a hardware store and get a drum for a 1937 steam engine. You have to go to a machine shop and have it machined.”

‘You Cost Everybody’

On a recent Friday, Mr. Robertson’s lock resembled ancient ruins, mud-colored, emerging from the river. It is still in working order, but it looked abandoned. Paint peeled, concrete cracked, and there was no reason to fix it. Each piece of Olmsted that is placed in the river is “one step closer to 53 being obsolete,” he said. “I’m getting phased out and I’m O.K. with that,” Mr. Robertson said.

Earlier, Mr. Robertson was driving past Mound City, Ill., just downstream from Olmsted. The grain harvest was coming in, filling the huge elevators and making two-story piles on the ground. Trucks carrying grain drove by every few minutes. All the farmers in the surrounding countryside depend on him, he said. If the locks fail, their corn doesn’t get to market.

“You know that everybody pinpoints down to you. You see it firsthand, they’ve got a wife, kids, a paycheck,” he said. “If you mess up, you cost everybody.”

Mr. Robertson was lockmaster of No. 52 for five years. Because of the stress, he said, his doctor told him he needed to do something else if he wanted to live. When the job opened up, he was relieved to be transferred to No. 53, where the dam is down more and stress is lower.

Even drinking water is at the mercy of the locks. When the corps lowered No. 52’s pool to work on the dam on Sept. 14, Paducah’s intake pipes — which suck water directly out of the river — could have risen above water. If the closing had persisted for 96 hours, as was predicted, the town of 25,000 people would have had to find another source of water.

A few days later, Mr. Helland stood above the dam on a steel box that would protect his divers from the fierce current when they dived into the river to fix the wickets. The steam-powered maneuver boat lay against the dam, boiler hissing. The crane operator jiggled his foot on the pedals. Warm vapor rose from the roiling rapids below. On top of the dam, a milk crate, a dead fish, a bowling ball and hundreds of logs had come to rest. “Did you know bowling balls float?” asked Scott Davis, a lock operator.

Waiting on Progress

Earlier that week, it was starting to rain, and Mr. Davis and Sadie, his black dog, were leaving for the night. They walked past three retired wickets on the ground above the lock. The wood was gray, pockmarked and scoured from the river. “This is the best-made thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Mr. Davis, 52. “The wood is spectacular — it’s the heartwood of white oak trees.” He has been taking old wickets home, milling the wood, and making picture frames and coffee tables. “When somebody retires from here, I’m going to give them a picture of a sunset over the lock and a coffee table to put their feet on,” he said.

By the time the William Hank was cleared to enter No. 52’s lock, the captain had gone to bed, and the pilot, Jackson Walker (universally called Bubba), was in the pilot house. “I have actually sat on both sides of this lock for a week to a week and a half before,” he said. “That’s money these companies are having to pay these guys just to sit.” Slowly, the boat chugged toward the lock wall.

One thousand feet in front of him, on the head of the tow, a deckhand called over the radio telling him how close he was: “All right, Bubba, four more feet you be looking at daylight on that long wall … about a foot or two to the good.”

Mr. Walker maneuvered the William Hank into the 1,200-foot chamber, a temporary addition from 1969 that has long outlived its design life. Instead of a smooth wall, the chamber is made of poured concrete cylinders that almost seem designed to catch the front of a barge. “You can easily get quartered just enough that you can jam up in here and do a bunch of damage,” Mr. Walker said. His tow, like most, was 105 feet wide. The lock chamber is 110 feet wide. To park his 1,130-foot, 19,200-ton craft, he had as much space as a car does in a crowded parking lot.

Gently tapping the stainless steel levers that control the rudders and pulling back and forth on the two throttles, Mr. Walker steered, came ahead, and stopped in the center of the chamber. To his right, the bedraggled condition of the wickets was apparent. “It’s just like holding your fingers up against the water and letting it flow through,” he said. The William Hank had waited eight hours to get here. “This is one of the fastest I’ve seen it,” Mr. Walker said.

A man in a neon green vest rode a little yellow scooter to the end of the lock wall. He got out and leaned back on a long metal lever. The lock gate began to creak and groan. A big red gear turned, a black steel arm stretched out, and the gate slowly closed. No. 52 is operated entirely by hydraulics, and Mr. Helland said he could tell by the sound if something was wrong. The lock operator can move a tow through the chamber in an hour by himself, using the levers and a set of buttons inside two sheet metal shacks a little bigger than portable toilets.

At Olmsted, this will all be done with clicks of a mouse, but no matter how much money is invested in infrastructure by the Trump administration, Mr. Helland’s shoulders will feel the weight of 80 million tons for at least two more years.

Source: Tyler J. Kelley, The New York Times

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