Miss. River Flooding Impacts Barge Commerce

Robert Siegel speaks with Lynn Muench, a vice president of industry group American Waterways Operators, about the impact and economic fallout to the barge, tow and tugboat industry because of the flooding on the Mississippi river.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Rising water levels have also slowed barge traffic along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Restrictions are making it difficult for the flat-bottomed boats to ship raw materials and finished goods on time. And that may have an economic impact on not only areas that are flooded, but the rest of the United States.

Lynn Muench is the senior vice president of Regional Advocacy for the American Waterways Operators trade association. In other words, she speaks for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry. And she joins us now from Little Rock, Arkansas. Welcome to the program.

Ms. LYNN MUENCH (Senior Vice President, Regional Advocacy, American Waterways Operators): Good afternoon. Thank you.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you, in a recent article in the Tennessean, you were quoted as saying that "the current situation is akin to tearing down all the bridges across the Mississippi River to the trucking industry."

Can you explain that? What actually has happened?

Ms. MUENCH: There's been several places on the river that have been closed and have been - essentially nothing can move. So it's taken out a thoroughfare that is the river system in the United States.

SIEGEL: And what kind of volume of traffic would there normally be on that river system?

Ms. MUENCH: Well, millions of tons move every day up and down those waterways; everything from grain exports to coal exports, to imports such as cement, sand and petroleum products. So basically, all the building products that come into this country and leave this country.

SIEGEL: Now, I know that you've been in touch both with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard. Do you question their decision to close things down or do you agree that that's what has to be done with the rivers right now?

Ms. MUENCH: It depends on the situation. There are certainly times when the river needs to be closed down. But when people are just making guesses at how things are happening, then it's not the right decision.

SIEGEL: Well, which is the case right now? Are people making guesses or are they making wise decisions?

Ms. MUENCH: Well, up until last weekend there were some guesses. But at this point most of the decisions seem to be well thought out and moving things in a way that makes sense to protect the safety of the people on the vessels and communities, but also protecting the levees.

SIEGEL: And so now, what do you think the timetable is? What are you waiting to see before you would advocate reopening the waterways?

Ms. MUENCH: Well, it depends on the location where it needs to be reopened. Right now, the only place that is closed to traffic is on the Ohio River at the Smithland Lock. The Mississippi River at this point is open everywhere with restrictions. There may be some more closures as we approach the weekend and the waters approach New Orleans.

SIEGEL: Are the people who are sending goods up and down, or expecting to receive those goods up and down, the inland waterways, do you hear complaints from your members that their customers are running short of things?

Ms. MUENCH: Every day. Several places have had to close down on the Ohio River because supplies couldn't get there. Obviously it really increases the amount that caused to ship anything, including for exports. And one of the reasons that we've always been so competitive in the agricultural exports out of this country is the efficiency of the waterway system, where we move a lot of product for not much gas.

As a matter of fact, we move 560 miles one ton of product with one gallon.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I saw a figure. You have an equivalence of what one of barge on the Mississippi, say, carries - how much it carries compared to truckloads.

Ms. MUENCH: One barge carries approximately 700 semi-truck loads. And so, when you start looking at a traditional tow going to New Orleans of 35 to 45 barges, and at this point they're being restricted to 20 to 25 barges, you're looking at a huge economic problem for the nation.

SIEGEL: Any sense from the Corps of Engineers as to when things might really ease up and get back to normal?

Ms. MUENCH: Well, I think everyone is looking at the calendar and looking at the projections. This is unprecedented because it's not just the Mississippi River that's high, so is the Ohio River and all its tributaries and the Missouri River. So everything is flowing together, it's going to be a long time before we can get back to normal operations.

SIEGEL: Well, Lynn Muench, of the American Waterways Operators, thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. MUENCH: Thank you.

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