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Public Comments on Mississippi River Locks Plan

Arial view of the Mississippi River.
File photo | St. Louis Public Radio
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Mississippi River (Corps photo)

By Kevin Lavery, KWMU

St. Louis – After a series of public hearings across the Midwest, it was St. Louis' turn Wednesday night to weigh in on an Army Corps of Engineers proposal to expand the Mississippi River lock and dam system.

More than 60 people spoke for and against a plan to spend more than $7 billion to build new locks, lengthen existing ones and restore wildlife habitat. Buddy Compton with the Ingram Barge Company said the lock system built in the 1930's is in urgent need of an upgrade.

"After all of the studies have been concluded, there is one thing for sure - these 70-year-old structures that were only designed to last for 30 years will fail," Compton said. "The result to our society will be catastrophic."

The project would extend over 50 years at a total cost of more than $7 billion. The Mississippi River Basin Alliance's Angela Anderson opposes the expansion plan.

"There is no really good reason to proceed with new locks right now," Anderson said. "River traffic has been stagnant since Ronald Reagan was elected president the first time. The smartest way to proceed is to implement small-scale measures, evaluate their effect, and then evaluate the need for new locks."

The public can comment on the Corps proposal until July 30. A final report is expected to go to Congress by November.

The barge industry and the National Corn Growers Association say the improvements are vital to international trade.

Chris Brescia with the pro-barge group MARC 2000 said the failure to upgrade the system has cost the U.S. its edge in the export market.

"It's our time now to upgrade our system so that we can get back on top and be competitive with a country like Brazil that has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to do just that," Brescia said.

However, Scott Faber with the group Environmental Defense said domestic markets such as ethanol plants and feed lots are growing at a faster rate.

"The way that farmers are making money in America today is by putting their corn into the mouth of a pig or into somebody's gas tank, not by shipping it overseas to China," Faber said. "There simply has been no increase in the amount of traffic going down the river or exports generally in 30 years."

Faber said environmentalists are also skeptical of the Corps' proposal to spend another $5 billion on environmental restoration.

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