Beached Barge BootyLow river presents salvage mother lode

Published 11:30 am Friday, July 27, 2012

Decaying, muddy barges sitting on the river’s bank at the Port of Vicksburg represent a bit of unfinished business for Robert Keyes Jr.

“These were left over from the flood, when they were pushed back here,” Keyes said, scoping out parts of four old barges stranded in the harbor. The local recycler and a three-man crew will cut up the barges for scrap he estimates could net $120,000.

Keyes runs half of a river scrap salvage partnership with J.O. Smith III, of Big River Shipbuilders and Salvage.

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When the Mississippi River rages to new heights, as was the case in 2011, chances are slim they can put a torch on a sunken barge. If the river is low enough to create beachfront property in Madison Parish, albeit on private land, it’s time Keyes and Smith go to work.

“We’ve been waiting to get to them,” Keyes said. “There’s no telling how many pieces it will be.”

After contracting with the previous owners of the barges, the two salvage the rusty barges, either for repair work or for scrap.

“It’s like a body shop for barges,” Keyes said.

The river was 1.8 feet in Vicksburg this morning, the same as Thursday. The record low in the city is negative 7 feet, on Feb. 3, 1940. Its record height came last year, when it climbed to 57.1 feet on May 19 during the historic flood. The river stood at 28.2 feet in Vicksburg on this date last year.

Dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and commercial outfits has kept the Lower Mississippi navigable despite the low stages. No closures are imminent, the Coast Guard has said. Forecasts to mid-August have the river dropping to a tenth of a foot in Vicksburg.

Business has dropped in the tugboat, towboat and barge industry as loads have become lighter. Ten areas in the Lower Mississippi seen as problem areas for river transport due to the low stages are concentrated in an area between Greenville and just south of Cairo, Ill., according to The American Waterways Operators, an industry trade organization.

Those sites are near small islands and sandbars scattered in shallow spots in the river, said Lynn Muench, a senior vice president with the organization. Still, exposed rock and silt are growing in size, Muench said.

“They’re not so minor when you can’t get through them,” she said.