By Karl Plume
(Reuters) - More than 300 barges were awaiting passage through a closed section of the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Mississippi, on Monday, a day after two tanker barges struck a railroad bridge and one leaked an unknown amount of oil into the river.
The river was closed between river mile markers 425 and 441 and a queue of 12 northbound vessels containing 142 barges and 12 southbound vessels containing 162 barges was waiting to pass on Monday morning, Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Vega said.
The cleanup could keep the river closed until at least Thursday, shipping sources said.
Barge freight costs were not immediately affected but bids firmed for loaded barges of soybeans down river from the closure.
"The timetable right now is that we don't expect it to reopen until at least Thursday," said one barge broker who asked not to be named.
"Freight buying interest has been very soft lately so it's not changing anything in the freight market today. The only thing it is doing is making some soybeans south of that closure worth a little more," he said.
Basis bids for afloat soybean barges in the CIF (cost, insurance and freight) market rose 2 cents per bushel to 112 cents over Chicago Board of Trade March futures, a 7-cent premium to barges loaded in the first half of February.
The cause of Sunday's accident was not yet clear, but the closure was the latest in a string of logistical headaches for shippers who rely on inland waterways to haul billions of dollars worth of grain, coal, fertilizer and other commodities.
Low water along a busy shipping corridor between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, has threatened to disrupt traffic on the drought-drained river since December. Dredging operations and other work aimed at keeping barges flowing have also snarled traffic at times.
The river system's busiest lock was closed for a day last week after a barge collided with a lock gate.
The Mississippi River is the main shipping waterway for grain moving from farms in the Midwest to export facilities at the Gulf of Mexico. Some 55 to 65 percent of U.S. corn, soybean and wheat shipments exit the country via the Gulf of Mexico.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)