Corps to get $55M more for silt fight

Published 11:44 am Thursday, January 19, 2012

NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will get $55 million in emergency funds to pay for dredging the silting Mississippi River — a sum that will help the Corps maintain the river’s channel to depths ships need to safely navigate the waterway.

The new funds are from an emergency spending bill allocated this week, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said Wednesday.

Rachel Rodi, a Corps spokeswoman, said the money increases the Corps’ ability to dredge the river and “eases concerns for the rest of the year.”

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The Corps had about $70 million this year for dredging. With the new funds, the Corps will have more than $120 million, which is more than the Corps had received in years past for dredging.

The Corps cut its dredging budget last year and maritime businesses have complained of channel narrowing and silting in. A coal freighter ran aground briefly Tuesday, highlighting problems in the channel.

Last week, maritime businesses released a report showing that the U.S. economy faced losing billions of dollars in trade unless the Corps’ budget for dredging was increased to prevent the river from silting in.

Every year, the Corps keeps the channel open with dredges that remove mud and allow ships to get to the Port of New Orleans. The Corp’s dredging budget was cut $45 million last year.

The Corps’ Vicksburg District maintains seven ports and harbors on the river in Mississippi and Louisiana, including Vicksburg Harbor. Cutterhead dredges under contract to the Corps dredge the ports annually. Also, the Dredge Jadwin, a four-story, 274-foot-long dustpan dredge built in 1933 and re-powered in 1985, clears silt from the river floor by a high-powered vacuum head.

The Mississippi River is a major thoroughfare to the world’s markets for grain, soybeans, pig iron, coal and many other products for 29 states and Canada. About 60 percent of U.S. grain exports cross the mouth of the Mississippi. Between $85 billion and $104 billion in foreign trade passes through New Orleans, according to figures from the Customs and Border Protection.

But the river carries huge amounts of silt and sediment — about 200 million tons a year — and unless it is stirred up by dredges the river clogs up and that forces ships to reduce their draft.

The Corps said it was sending a dredge to clear the channel near Venice, La.