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One of two barges remained in the chamber of Wilson Lock near Florence on Friday after they damaged the gate Thursday.
Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
One of two barges remained in the chamber of Wilson Lock near Florence on Friday after they damaged the gate Thursday.

Wilson road may reopen; river traffic to crawl

By Eric Fleischauer
DAILY Business Writer

eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

The Alabama 133 bridge may be accepting vehicles as early as today, but Tennessee River barge traffic will be at a trickle for the foreseeable future, as officials grapple with repairing the damaged Wilson Lock near Florence.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened an auxiliary lock to river traffic about 2 p.m. Friday, allowing about one barge per hour to pass.

Six barges an hour can travel through the main lock when it is operating.

Jim Davis, Corps operations manager for the Tennessee River from Guntersville Lake to Pickwick Lake, said Friday he hopes to release a barge that is stuck in the main lock chamber today.

Once the barge — which is loaded with hazardous materials — exits the chamber, Davis said, he expects the Tennessee Valley Authority to open the bridge that spans Wilson Dam on Alabama 133 to road traffic.

TVA officials did not immediately return calls Friday afternoon.

The main lock may not open anytime soon, though, Davis said.

"It will be closed for a while," he said. "We can't do a thing until we get this barge out. I won't have a clue (on when we can open the main lock) until we can really get in and assess exactly how much damage we've got to this gate."

That's bad news for the 42 barges and five towboats that were waiting near the auxiliary lock Friday afternoon.

It is also bad news for Decatur industry. Decatur's port is the largest on the Tennessee River, and many of the marooned barges are headed to or from factories here. The barges also must pass through Wheeler Dam, which lies between Decatur and Wilson Dam.

The two barges that caused the damage Thursday morning were headed for BP Decatur. Motor Vessel Potomac, owned and operated by Maryland Marine Inc. of Houston, Texas, was transporting them. The front lip of one of the barges jammed under the lock gate. When the lock filled with water, the barge forced the gate out of its tracks.

The accident lifted the gate on the upstream side of the lock out of the water. Friday afternoon, the gate was resting on the barge.

The barges, including the one that remains in the lock chamber, were filled with liquid ethylbenzene xylene. Both barges sustained damage, but Corps officials said none of the xylene has leaked into the river or the air.

Xylene fumes can cause neurological damage, eye damage and death. The chemical, used by BP to manufacture polyester fiber, is highly flammable. Hazardous materials crews will remain in position until the barge is dislodged from the chamber, Corps officials said. An evacuation plan and cleanup materials are at the ready in case a leak begins.

First-come, first-served

Davis said the Corps will allow barges through the auxiliary lock on a first-come, first-served basis, but he said close cooperation between tow operators should prevent confusion or increased risk of collisions.

"We have a self-help program where they help each other. It works really well," Davis said. "The industry controls that, and they work really good together."

Davis said he knows the accident is causing problems for area industry, but his focus is narrower for now.

"We've been so involved in this accident that we really haven't had time to talk to the companies in the area," Davis said. "We don't know what they are doing to handle this."

Some industries are in better shape than they might otherwise be because of hurricane season. Especially since Hurricane Katrina, factories have increased inventory to lessen the impact a hurricane would have if it shut down Tennessee River traffic. That excess inventory is helping them now.

Decatur's Solutia Corp., which depends heavily on barge traffic for raw materials, has enough inventory to wait out a significant delay in the opening of the main lock, said Public Affairs Specialist Missy Hammonds.

"At this point, the plant has not been adversely affected," she said. "We have enough to run through what we believe will be held up by the incident at the lock."

In addition to preparation for hurricanes, Solutia is sensitive to maintaining enough inventory since it struggled through a lock closure in 2000, when a barge carrying concrete sank in Wilson Lock's main chamber.

"There have been some lessons learned," she said. "We have enough to last for a while."

A lengthy shutdown could be devastating to the North Alabama river corridor, said an official with the Alabama State Port Authority, which has shared jurisdiction over all navigable rivers in the state.

"If this lock is closed for a protracted period of time, you're going to see some really significant hits of the industries up there," said Judith Adams, director of media relations and economic development.

"This is an important river system," Adams said. "It could impact a corridor of industries up there that depend on that waterway to move their raw materials and their finished product."

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