By David Gambrel

Lock and dam development in the United States moves along at a glacial pace, and it seems to be going slower every day. Locks and dams are mechanical systems that wear out with time, and the coal industry has a vested interest in their long-term reliability. These systems are also a storehouse of incredible potential energy, capable of unleashing tremendous destructive power downstream if not properly maintained. Is the coal industry, a major beneficiary of barge transportation, putting its sizable muscle behind the effort to help improve the development of water navigation systems?

The Olmsted project sits at the lower end of the Ohio River containment system, 964 miles downstream from Pittsburgh, Pa. In many respects the project represents new technology and new equipment. The construction of the dam is taking place “in the wet,” which means the requisite concrete shells are constructed on land and set in place in the flowing river. Sonar and video imaging systems guide the movements of mammoth cranes to tolerances of ¼ inches or less to make this assembly method work.

The drop in elevation from Pittsburgh to Olmsted is about 450 ft, which means the system of 20 dams may be storing an enormous amount of potential energy, literally enough energy to destroy every bridge and river city from Olmsted to the U.S. Gulf if even a fraction of its total energy were to be released. The last locks and dams in the system are Locks and Dams 52 and 53. Deteriorating structurally, they have no steel reinforcements and are 50% to 100% stressed under normal operating conditions. Combined, these dams hold back a wall of water about 50 ft high. Were either to begin failing, it may not be possible to evacuate Olmsted before total failure of both dams releases a water wave 25- to 50-ft high.

The Olmsted project site is dedicated to the production of specialty rebar and concrete shells, and to building a 2,700 ft dam across the Ohio River. To install these 3,700-ton shells the project uses two of the world’s largest cranes, one a land-based crane and the other a mammoth floating crane. Despite their size, they are capable of setting slabs to very precise tolerances in the fast-flowing current.

During a meeting with a barge company executive recently, I heard him say, “52 at 52.” He explained that 52 barge tows were backed up at Lock and Dam 52.” “WHAT?” This was a shock to me, but apparently he was numb to it. It was good weather. There was no high water, no ice in the river, no obvious reason for such a tremendous backup. What is it about this lock and its nearby brother, Lock and Dam 53?

The 2008 tonnage at Locks and Dams 53 and 52 totaled 76.1 and 90 million tons, respectively, worth more than $17 billion; 38% of this tonnage was coal. The Ohio River Main Stem Systems Study projected that Olmsted traffic will grow 141 million tons by 2030.

Olmsted Locks and Dam had been authorized by the Water Resources Development Act of 1988 to replace Ohio River Locks and Dams 52 and 53 with a single lock and dam project. Now 81 years old, these locks and rickety old wooden wicket dams are still in place, just waiting to fail. Now 22 years later we are still talking about a major barge backup at Locks and Dam 52. I asked, “What happened to Olmsted? I testified before the Senate subcommittee that authorized that project years ago; I thought it had been completed.”

“Nope, it isn’t even close,” he said. In fact, the locks were completed in 2004, but the dam is in the early stages of construction.

The temporary locks at 52 and 53 are inefficient, often shut down and are 30 years past their 20 year design life. The latest estimated total cost of the Olmsted project is $2.124 billion, an increase of $1.3 billion (258%) over the original estimate. As taxpayers we should be outraged. In addition, the construction completion date has been delayed from 2005 to 2016, 11 years beyond the original estimate.

Who would tolerate such delays or overruns? Yet, because locks and dams are so large and foreign to most of us in the coal industry, we somehow feel justified in telling the waterways people it is their problem when they call on us requesting help, even if all they are asking is our support—our name on a list of supporters. Unfortunately, the simple failure to be counted among the supporters of a project is often regarded as being opposed to the project.

Nothing could be further from the truth than the declaration it is not our problem. It is our problem ethically if not economically. Unlike the railroads, which are necessarily private, the inland waterways belong to every citizen. If any part of the waterway system fails, and our barges go racing down the river, we can forget about a loss of coal being our biggest worry. Our biggest worry will be those barges taking out bridge piers and bridges downstream, reading our names on a list of those being accused of bridge disasters, and being named in lawsuits.

Lock Failure Much More Likely
While a dam failure is within the realm of possibility, it is much more likely Locks 52 or 53 could fail. Lock 52 on the landward side was built as a temporary 1,200-ft structure with round cells, originally filled with sand and capped with concrete. Stones were put in later as filler; and about a third of the cells have recently been filled with concrete and banded with sheet metal, because they were splitting and the filler was falling out. These reinforced cells are still not as strong as the reinforced concrete walls of permanent locks like those at Smithland Locks and Dam upstream.

The locks have numerous problems: lock wall cells rusting, concrete approach walls crumbling and cracking, foundations failing, aging miter gate machinery and hydraulic piping, etc. The problems are similar at Locks and Dam 53.

The cells aren’t the only vulnerable components of these locks. The approach walls, for example, are deteriorating. As these locks age there is a growing risk that before Olmsted comes on line, there would be a failure that would shut down the river to barge traffic altogether. One can only imagine the expense, delay and confusion that might result from off-loading 52 barge tows should this happen.

The cost escalation in the Olmsted project can be linked to factors such as design and scope changes, differing site conditions and omissions, some of which were within the Corps’ control, while others, such as some of the escalation (approximately 30%) has been attributed to “inefficient funding.”

It is apparent the cost growth experienced at Olmsted has contributed significantly to the spend-down of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF). Because the IWTF shares in the costs of construction and major rehabilitation of Inland Marine Transportation Systems (IMTS) projects, it needs to remain viable. Recent case studies have revealed significant inefficiencies, and have shown the model for planning, funding, constructing and maintaining these waterways is broken. Changes and improvements must be made in the way that inland waterways system modernization projects are conceived, funded and delivered. The current IWTF revenues of approximately $85 million per year cannot support the ongoing needs of the IMTS.

On November 17, 2010, Matt Woodruff of Kirby Corp., a major tank barge operator, appeared before Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Committee on Environment and Public Works to testify in support of recommendations developed by the IMTS (Capital Investment Strategy Team). They were a comprehensive, consensus-based set of proposals to address the capital investments that should be made over the next 20 years to preserve and enhance the nation’s inland waterway transportation system.

These recommendations had been approved by the Inland Waterways Users Board, Waterways Council, American Waterways Operators and National Waterways Conference. There was also a list of 200 associations and companies expressing their support. Notably absent from the list of supporters were most of the coal industry giants; the only coal company listed was CONSOL Energy.

It is entirely possible that one might discover a coal company representative doing committee work in the bowels of some waterways group, but when major coal users of the inland waterway system do not sign on and give strong and obvious support, it weakens the effort of those that do sign on. Basically, Woodruff said, we have an aging waterways system that needs recapitalization. The current system of funding and delivery is too inefficient, resulting in wasted time and money. He is absolutely right.

The contract for this project was originally won at a bid of $350 million, which seems infinitesimal now. In fact, it was too small then. No construction company would bid on it. Based on a cost reimbursable contract, a joint venture comprised of URS and Alberici won the construction contract at $650 million, but delays in money release have caused the project to drag on, suffering both normal escalation and price increases of essential products. It is not the objective of this article to analyze why the current estimate exceeds $2 billion, but it is certainly in the users’ and taxpayers’ interest to complete this project before the estimate doubles again, and before river disasters occur.

Normally, when a construction project falls behind or stalls completely, everything comes to a halt and there are seemingly endless recriminations, but lives are not at stake. This is different. This is a race with the clock. As long as we finish before there is a failure at either Locks and Dams 52 and 53, we will be in a position at the completion of Olmsted to say there was never any danger. On the other hand that happy event is another eight years away, eight years of relentless river pounding of two weakening structures that could burst at any moment.

The waterways industry has been fighting a long-running battle to inform Congress and anyone else who would listen about the need to maintain and improve this system, but the relative quietness of the waterways system belies what is happening underwater, what parts of the system are weakening and eroding. If we do not do everything we can to support the speedy completion of Olmsted and other projects in the pipeline, we are doing much more than risking some barges of coal. In some cases we may be risking the lives of people who live downstream.

Dave Gambrel is the president of Logisticon, a coal transportation consultancy. He was senior transportation executive of a major mining company for 15 years. In 1988 he testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water Resources, and assisted in securing the passage of S.2100 authorizing the Olmsted Project. He may be reached at david.gambrel@gmail.com or at bunkgambrel@earthlink.net