Mississippi River Reopens, Freeing Over 1,000 Stuck Barges

The U.S. Coast Guard has reopened the Mississippi River to maritime traffic, ending a shutdown that stranded more than 1,000 barges on the key conduit for agriculture exports.

The river reopened as of 9 a.m. Central Time on Friday, according to the Coast Guard, providing relief to a queue of 62 vessels and 1,058 barges stranded on the north and south sides of the Interstate 40 Hernando DeSoto Bridge near Memphis, Tennessee. The waterway had been closed since Tuesday after a crack was found in a truss of the bridge.

“The Coast Guard has determined that transit under the I-40 bridge is safe for maritime traffic,” Capt. Ryan Rhodes, Captain of the Port of Memphis, said in a statement, citing information provided by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

The crack in the bridge, found during a routine inspection, had stranded barges and cut off the biggest route for U.S. agricultural exports when the critical waterway is at its busiest. Covered barges full of grain and soy float from U.S. farm country to terminals in the Gulf of Mexico, while crude oil, refined products and imported steel also travel through sections of the waterway.

Priorities for resuming vessel traffic are Department of Defense and red flag fuel barges, many of which are helping offset shortages created by the Colonial pipeline outage, followed by passenger boats and then southbound and northbound cargoes, according to Lt. Mark Pipkin of the Coast Guard’s Sector Lower Mississippi River.

The reopening will be a “big help for American agriculture,” said Dan Basse, president of Chicago-based consultants AgResource, adding that he sees river operations returning to normal by mid next week.

“The record large U.S. summer corn export program is not threatened,” he said in an interview. There “should not be any big snags as long as two-way traffic can persist.”

The New Orleans Port Region moved 47% of waterborne agricultural exports in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The majority of these exports were bulk grains and bulk grain products, such as corn, soybeans, animal feed and rice. The region also supports a significant amount of edible oil exports, such as soybean and corn oils.

Mississippi River Reopens, Freeing Over 1,000 Stuck Barges

“I don’t know if U.S. river transportation rises to the level of national security, but it’s importance to U.S. commerce and trade is such that I’m confident they’ll find a way to keep river traffic open,” said Ken Morrison, a St. Louis-based independent commodity trader. “There may be some partial delays at some point when they go in to repair the bridge for highway travel, but I expect that would be barge traffic allowed during daylight hours and not full closure.”

Tennessee’s transportation department said it doesn’t have specifics on a repair plan for the bridge or a time frame for the work. Evidence of damage in the same area of the fracture was spotted by an inspector’s drone video in May 2019, the Arkansas Department of Transportation said Friday in a statement.

Mississippi River Reopens, Freeing Over 1,000 Stuck Barges

“Hopefully the repair efforts will not cause restrictions in barge traffic,” said Joseph Glauber, a former chief economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Grain and oilseed shipments to the Gulf pick up in the late spring and early summer, and weekly shipments have been running above the three-year average due to increased trade with China.”

Of agricultural supplies on barges north of Memphis, the vast majority was corn.

“Any time you have a halt to the flow of barges, there will inevitably be another ‘clog’ that occurs downriver,” said Bevan Everett, risk management consultant and grains market analyst at StoneX, adding that at most the delay in movement may extend through the weekend.

“Since traffic is going to be open both ways, by Monday you probably won’t be able to tell this halt happened,” Everett said.

The river reopening gives Midwest agricultural markets overseas access again as Chinese buyers have scooped up large amounts of corn in recent days, said Bob Yawger, head of the futures division at Mizuho Securities.

“Infrastructure delays had the potential to scare them away or pause the pace of buying,” Yawger said. “A quick reopening of the river will stop that from happening.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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