New mat sinking unit will improve Corps’ efficiency in erosion battle

Published 9:46 am Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking a major step toward improving its services along the Mississippi River with the proposed upgrade of its 67-year-old mat sinking unit.

The mat sinking unit is part of an annual maintenance program on the river that lays more than 100,000 4-by-6-foot concrete mats and places them on the banks of the river to prevent erosion and protect submerged riverbanks. The permanent 24-foot concrete mat sections are tied together and rolled onto the banks to help control erosion.

It uses a large number of men and women working for four months on the Mississippi River in an annual struggle to maintain the riverbanks for levee protection and to provide a safe navigation channel.

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But the unit’s age and the labor-intensive activity used to lay the mats has made it expensive and inefficient to operate.

“The unit was designed and built in 1948 using 1948 technology,” Vicksburg District commander Col. John W. Cross recently told the Vicksburg Lions Club. “If you had a car built in 1948, by now you’ve replaced the engine, transmission, brakes, windshield, glass and pretty much everything else, and after all that you still have a 1948 car with no seat belts, no backup camera, no airbags, no ABS and it’s terribly fuel inefficient.”

Cross is working with a team of engineers from Philadelphia to design a new unit that will use off-the-shelf equipment currently used in automatic factories and assembly lines. Using off-the-shelf technology was pioneered by the U.S. Navy in the 1990s through it “Smart Ship” program that led to technological advances in the design of the service’s latest warships. It’s a tried and tested method that the Corps is wise to employ, and the result of the new design and technology will be a more efficient and cost-effective unit.

Cross said the new automated unit would nearly double its output now while increasing safety.

“Approximately 78 percent of injuries in the district come from the Mat Sinking Unit,” he said. “In the out years it would reduce the cost of injuries by at least 1/3, because a lot of the injuries sustained out there are ones you would typically see around heavy machinery or lifting objects. They’re back sprains, neck sprains, they’re ankle injuries and occasionally the loss of an eye, finger, thumb or hand.”

Currently, the unit can lay 200 mats a day, he said, automation would double that, and it will be a smaller unit.

“Right now this thing is so big, that sometimes it blocks the entire Mississippi River, and when that happens my phone rings off the hook with transportations companies calling,” Cross said. “Reducing the size of the unit would allow it to be used on tributaries of the Mississippi.”

Keeping the Mississippi and it tributaries flowing and providing protection for the people who live along its banks is a major project for the Corps. So is performing that function in the most efficient and most cost-effective manner possible. A new automated mat sinking unit will help the Corps do that.