Corps' work to keep Mississippi open blasted

June 7, 2011 - 6:12 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana politicians and maritime interests are urging Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers to step up dredging on the lower portions of the Mississippi so ships can more easily enter and exit the river at the Gulf of Mexico.

The river is silting in from the sediment being pushed downriver by extremely high waters. The Army Corps, cash-strapped like the rest of the federal government, cut back on dredging earlier this year but the number of dredges at the mouth of the river has increased.

Still, maritime interests, which have come together to form the Big River Coalition, said more was needed or they could face losing huge amounts of cargo.

The high river this year has made the channel less easy to navigate for ships and other river traffic.

At Southwest Pass, the main channel into the river, the safe passage of ships has been reduced from a draft of 45 feet to 44 feet and it is expected to go down to 43 feet. Cargo handlers say each drop in draft forces ships to carry less cargo and in some cases go to other ports.

"They are barely maintaining the channel," said Michael Lorino, president of the Associated Branch Pilots, a group of mariners who guide ships on the lower portion of the river. "This is not a Louisiana issue, this is about the nation."

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, likened the restrictions "to reducing major interstates to a single lane and imposing size restrictions on vehicles because the roads were not maintained."

Shippers and port officials said that if no additional funding is found to increase dredging the draft could be reduced even more as the river levels drop in the swollen river and that could lead to interruptions in the flow of coal, crude oil products, grains and much else.

The shippers and elected officials called on Congress to give the corps $95 million in emergency funds.

About $450 million tons of cargo worth about $114 billion passes along the lower Mississippi, the Port of New Orleans said.