The 54th U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ chief of engineers visited the Headwaters District, June 22, to gain a better understanding of the challenges inland navigation faces with an aging infrastructure.
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, USACE commanding general, and Command Sgt. Maj. Antonio Jones visit started with a tour of two Pittsburgh District inland navigation facilities, the Montgomery Locks and Dam on the Ohio River, and Charleroi Locks and Dam on the Monongahela River.
Col. Bernard Lindstrom, district commander, said the tour was designed to provide Lt. Gen. Semonite with an overview of the district’s vital missions.
“As the headwaters district, it’s our mission to maintain and operator some of the oldest inland navigation infrastructure in the Corps’ system,” Lindstrom said. “It’s important for him, as a new commanding general, to have a complete understanding of the challenges our district faces.”
Robert Buckel, Montgomery equipment mechanic supervisor, said the challenges faces the facilities are not any different from what should be expected with a 80-year-old project.
“One of the biggest challenges at Montgomery is there are no off-the-shelf parts,” Buckel said. “Our repair fleet does what they need to do to keep this facility up and running, and if that means they have to rebuild parts, that is what they do.”
Although, the facility underwent a major rehabilitation 30 years ago, Buckel said the rehab had a 25 years warranty. Now, he says, they are facing some of the same issues that the rehab addressed.
Crumbling concrete, old parts and a limited maintenance budget means the district has to be judicious about how every dollar is spent.
“I just want to keep this facility up and running the best way we can,” Buckel said. “We only want to continue to be an asset and not a hindrance to industry.”
Constructed from 1932 to 1936, Montgomery Locks and Dam opened in 1936. The facility eliminated the three original wooden wicket dams.
In addition to the condition of the locks and dam, Buckel said keeping and recruiting staff is also be an issue.
“We make lock and dam operators here,” Buckel said. “No one comes off the street as a lock and dam operator, we have to train them which we do gladly. Once an operator locks at Montgomery they can lock anywhere on the Allegheny, Ohio or the Monongahela rivers.”
During an award presentation at Montgomery Locks and Dam, Lt. Gen. Semonite recognized the challenges facing the district.
“You guys are dealing with some of the oldest facilities in the Corps’ system,” Semonite said. “Now, it’s up to headquarters to ask, how can we continue to support you, and when you do have a project, how can we best help to see it through? The solutions are not going to come today, but with some innovative thinking, we will find them.”
From Montgomery, the chief and the command sergeant major travelled to Locks and Dam 4 on the Monongahela River at Charleroi, Pennsylvania.
Charleroi is a part of the Lower Mon River project, which includes Elizabeth, the district’s oldest facility at 109 years old, and Braddock locks and dams. In 1992, Congress authorized the Corps’ plan to modernize the locks and dams on the lower river. Then, the project was expected to be complete in 2004, a decade ago, but inefficient funding has pushed the project date back to at least 2027 with an estimated price tag of $2.7 billion.
Standing on the dam’s bridge, Lt. Gen. Semonite had a bird’s eye view of the multiple construction projects in progress to include construction of a new lock chamber.
“Right now we are the bottle neck on the river,” Paul Meininger, lock master said. “With only one chamber open, we have to be vigilant to make sure the equipment and the chamber continues to run. If it goes down, the river goes down.”
When construction is finished, the new chamber will better accommodate the needs of today’s industry. The current chamber is 56-foot wide by 720-foot long, the new chamber will be 84-foot wide by 720-foot long. The wider chamber would allow industry to pass more barges through more quickly.
While at Charleroi, Lt. Gen. Semonite said that the Corps simply does not have the money to fix all of the challenges faces the district’s inland navigation system.
“If we can get industry to help us, technology to help us, and then, if we find the appropriate savings in other areas we can invest back in the system.” Lt. Gen. Semonite said. “It is the people who do the day-to-day operations that come up with innovative solutions to find a better value to give back to the nation.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Jones echoed the chief’s statements.
“It’s the wage grade people who make this system work every day and it’s those people that I’m out here to see, get to know, give a pat on the back and say thank you for all you do,” Jones said.
“It really is all about the Corps family, working side-by-side, that’s how we will keep this system working,” Semonite said.