Bridge collapse won’t have major impact on river traffic

The collapse of the I-35W bridge on Aug. 1 has stopped the flow of sand and gravel from south of Minneapolis to a Downtown cement plant, but most businesses aren’t likely to feel a sizable impact from the halting of shipping on the uppermost portion of the Mississippi River.

The collapse blocked shipping through the Upper and Lower St. Anthony locks and dams where nearly 2 million tons of freight is moved annually, most of that sand, gravel and recycled metal.

Hokan Miller, a dispatcher with the barge company Upper River Services of St. Paul, said, “We can always go play with pleasure boats anywhere you want to, but how are you going to get sand and gravel into Downtown Minneapolis?”

Bob Bieraugel, a vice president with Aggregate Industries, an international construction materials maker with an office in Eagan, said his company’s local operations have been badly hurt by the bridge disaster.

“It has shut it down,” he said.

Aggregate Industries has a sand and gravel mine as well as a limestone quarry on Upper and Lower Grey Cloud Island in Dakota County, northwest of Hastings. There it mines the rock materials used in construction projects and in making concrete.

The company floats the sand and gravel on barges upriver through the Upper and Lower St. Anthony locks and dams to its 26th Avenue plant where concrete is made.

“We have a smaller towboat that pushes barges up through the locks to 26th Avenue, where we have a distribution yard. Before the bridge went down, we were pushing 4,800 tons a day, every day, and now, obviously, we’re not doing that.”

That’s forced the company to lay off 25 workers, Bieraugel said.

American Iron, a North Minneapolis seller of recycled metal, is unable to move its scrap products downriver.

Andy Staebell, president of American Iron, told the Pioneer Press that “Our contingency plan, which will have a negative impact economically, is to use railroad or truck it over to our sister plant in St. Paul where we can load barges.”

Other industries won’t feel much of an economic impact from the collapse.

Ryan Kelbrants, a grain analyst at Benson-Quinn Commodities Inc., said the bridge collapse “is going to have a limited impact on our industry as a whole.”

He said most farming product shipping facilities are south of I-35W, “so it’s not that much of an issue.”

Bieraugel said he has no idea when he’ll be able to recall those laid-off employees and put them back to work on the Mississippi because he simply doesn’t know when the river will be open to business again.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Mark Davidson said he doesn’t know when the river will be open for navigation either, but he guesses it will be “months and months.”

The Army Corps of Engineers maintains a 9-foot-deep navigation channel the length of the river so that commodities can be floated all the way from St. Anthony Upper to New Orleans.

“What we do is we dredge, or we hire contractors to dredge, the river, the shipping lane to a 9-foot-depth. When a standard barge is fully loaded, it might go down 9 feet in the water,” Davidson said. “Obviously, we keep it a few feet deeper than that.”

Davidson said the Corps of Engineers will have to determine after debris has been removed from the river if damage has been done to a navigation guide wall.

“Then we’re going to have to start looking to make sure the navigation channel is safe,” he said.

Reach Michael Metzger at [email protected]