By Karl Plume
(Reuters) - Barge shipping on the Illinois River and parts of the Mississippi River was at a standstill on Monday as flooding forced the closure of numerous locks and crews worked to recover dozens of barges that broke free in flood-swollen currents.
The U.S. Coast Guard will close a section of the Illinois River near Peoria to all traffic later on Monday to protect levees, and was considering shipping restrictions in other areas as heavy currents made navigation treacherous.
The shipping headaches come just three months after near-record-low water threatened to close the Mississippi River along a busy stretch from St. Louis to its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois.
"While the conditions are much different than they were this winter, the effects are quite the same. We're placing operational guidelines on the vessel industry and shutting parts of the river," said Coast Guard spokesman Colin Fogarty.
"We're looking at all options to get navigation flowing again. However, until we can get the surveyors and the salvors out onto the scene it is difficult to say how soon we can get the river back open," he said.
A 15-mile stretch of the Mississippi River near St. Louis was closed late Saturday after 114 barges primarily owned by American Commercial Lines (ACL) broke free from a fleeting area and 11 of them, all containing coal, sank.
All of the barges had been secured and two salvage companies were working to raise the sunken barges and recover the rest.
Still, the river remained closed between mile markers 155 and 170 as the Army Corps surveyed the shipping channel. The Coast Guard did not have an estimate of when navigation may resume.
Four northbound and four southbound barge tows containing a total of 79 barges was awaiting passage at midday Monday, a Coast Guard spokesman said.
Another barge accident further south near Vicksburg, Mississippi, shuttered the river Sunday morning between mile markers 415 and 436 before one-way traffic was allowed to resume early on Monday.
Three grain barges and 27 coal barges had broken free of a barge tow. One sank and at least one struck a railroad bridge, the Coast Guard said.
When the river reopened to southbound traffic, 12 vessels pushing about 120 barges were awaiting passage. A northbound queue of 16 vessels pushing about 230 barges would be cleared through the area once the southbound queue had passed, the Coast Guard said.
The Army Corps shuttered about a dozen locks on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers late last week and over the weekend due to high water, but most could reopen by the end of April or early May, according to the latest river crest forecasts from the National Weather Service.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Dan Grebler and Jim Marshall)