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Pittsburgh area's aging locks and dams approach 'scary' status

| Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012

When three barges broke loose 10 days ago on the Monongahela River, bouncing off bridges, forcing road closures and slowing the morning commute, the accident resulted in yet-another unscheduled waterway closure in the Army Corps of Engineers' Pittsburgh District.

While most closures are not nearly as spectacular, they are common, according to local and national waterway officials. They promise to get worse.

Western Pennsylvania's 23 locks are old and, in some cases, crumbling, officials said. The Dashields lock and dam on the Ohio River has unstable chamber walls that move when vessels pass. At Lock and Dam No. 2 on the Allegheny, large chunks of concrete have fallen off chamber walls, risking vessels and crew. At the 76-year-old Montgomery Lock and Dam on the Ohio, the gates are so old and weak that two gave out in 2005 after loose barges crashed into them, although they are designed to sustain such a hit.

Combine that with continued cuts to federal funding for maintenance and operations, and the region's waterways are not only unreliable for industry, but approaching a "scary" status, officials said.

"We already have double the national average of unscheduled outages, and with cuts to federal funding, we're going to quadruple the national average this year," said Jim McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission. "When you think about it, it's really quite scary."

In a nation full of aging waterway infrastructure, Pittsburgh's is the oldest. Designed to last 50 years, about half of locks in the United States are 50 years or older, according to statistics from the Army Corps. In Western Pennsylvania, 66 percent are 50 years or older. The Emsworth locks on the Ohio River are 91 years old, and of the eight locks and dams on the Allegheny, the youngest, in Rimer, is 74 years old.

"They are aging and fatigued," said Jim Fisher, chief of operations for the corps' Pittsburgh District. "The only good news is that we know there are major problems."

Rimer and another Allegheny lock, at Templeton, have been shut down because there is no money for upkeep. Commercial vessels must call 24 hours in advance to pass.

Federal funding for maintenance and operations in the district is expected to drop for a second straight year, from $101 million in fiscal year 2010 and $83.3 million in 2011 to $71.4 million in 2012, according to the corps. The 2012 number is a projection; officials expect to get the final number in days, said Dan Jones, an Army Corps spokesman.

"We're doing no more major preventative maintenance," Fisher said.

The corps oversees nine locks on the Monongahela River, eight on the Allegheny River and six on the Ohio River. Its repair fleet -- which responds to vessel and lock emergencies and maintains the locks and dams -- has slashed hours of operation from 24 hours to 16 hours a day, Fisher said.

In the Jan. 19 accident, two coal barges headed for U.S. Steel's Clairton Works got loose near the Liberty Bridge. One floated to the Ohio and sank; the other struck a moored barge filled with sand at Frank Bryan Inc., a South Side construction materials supply business. It ripped that barge loose, then pinned it against a Smithfield Street Bridge pier. The Coast Guard is investigating the cause.

U.S. Steel depends on the Monongahela Ohio River system for transporting raw materials and finished steel to and from its Clairton, Irvin, and Edgar Thomson plants in the Mon Valley, said company spokeswoman Erin DiPietro.

"Without an efficient water transportation system, these plants would be significantly less competitive in today's steel market," she said.

Coal shipped to Clairton is used to make coke, she said. The coke is shipped to U.S. Steel blast furnaces in Braddock; Gary, Ind.; Detroit; Fairfield, Ala.; and Granite City, Ill.

Last year, there were 475 unscheduled closures of locks on Western Pennsylvania rivers, mostly from equipment failures, but also the result of rarer issues, such as loose barges and flooding, officials said. Unscheduled closings blocked river traffic for almost 9,500 hours combined, federal statistics show.

"We no longer have a reliable system. It's as simple as that," Fisher said.

The Coast Guard closed the Monongahela for two days while crews salvaged the loose barges. Traffic on the Ohio and Allegheny was not affected.

Debra Colbert, spokeswoman for the Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group Waterways Council Inc., said Pittsburgh must improve its waterway system or risk losing industry.

"We're at a critical juncture. We cannot take a Band-Aid approach," Colbert said.

Waterways Council is lobbying Congress to back a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., that would funnel more money into maintaining and rebuilding inland waterway infrastructure.

"Without waterways, everybody is going to have to pay a lot more for consumer goods," she said.

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