West Alabama businesses that move coal and other material to Mobile on the Black Warrior River will have to make other plans for the foreseeable future as infrastructure failure has led to the emergency closure of a lock in Demopolis.

The breach responsible happened last Tuesday, January 16th, and involved the concrete sill beneath one of the lock gates failing.

"The Demopolis Lock is closed to traffic for maintenance and repairs. A breach occurred Jan. 16, which was caused by a concrete sill failure. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working to analyze the extent of the damage and make necessary repairs," a spokesperson said in a press release. "There is no currently estimated time for completion of repairs; updates will be made as more information becomes available."

Frank McCormack of the Waterways Journal Weekly said the failure was not caused by an allision of a vessel with the lock, "the lock operator 'heard a big boom,' then saw water rushing under the east-side upper miter gate leaf."

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Chas Haun, the Executive Vice President of Tuscaloosa's Parker Towing Company, explained the problem for anyone who needs a refresher on the infrastructure of our waterways.

"Think of your front door. When you close it, you've got a jamb on the bottom. In this case, a lot of people originally thought that the equivalent of the weather stripping came out, which happens frequently, but that's not what happened here," Haun said. "The foundation beneath the gate has failed, and thinking back to your door, it's like somebody took a jackhammer and dug a six-inch hole underneath your front door and so water is just running straight in."

Assessing and repairing the damage will be a complicated process and first required closing the lower gate, which was still open when the concrete sill failed. It got closed again Friday with the assistance of three Parker Towing boats and six of their barges.

The TVA has joined the effort to fix the problem and, this weekend, sent a barge with a crane on it to install fabricated "stop logs" to hold back the upper pool from flowing into the lock chamber so it can finally be pumped dry and inspected.

"In the old days, it was a real wood log, but now it's basically a big steel structure four or five feet tall. They set it down, lock it in, set another on top of it and they form a new dam, essentially," Haun said. "When that's formed, it holds the upper pool back. You can pump out the lock chamber and inspect all the mechanisms of the lock, try and fix that concrete - they call it working in the dry."

As long as the lock remains closed, no normal traffic can pass through it, cutting off the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway from the Port of Mobile

"There is no normal traffic to get from the coal fields, NUCOR, Hunt Oil down to Mobile right now," Haun said.

For Parking Towing, that means some circuitous detours.

"We're looking at going down from this area to Demopolis, turning up the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway into the northwest corner of Alabama where it meets Mississippi and lock up to the Tennessee River," he said. "At that point, downstream runs north, and from there you can get to the Ohio River, go 30-40 miles down to the lower Mississippi, and go to New Orleans. From there we'd come across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to Mobile, so - it's a long way around."

The Demopolis Lock does not have a water control gate, and Haun said there should be no threat either up- or downstream because of the infrastructure failure.

"There's no public risk but I hope we get talking about the underlying issue of our nation's infrastructure," Haun said. "Roads and bridges are in horrible shape and locks and dams are even further down that list of priorities in Washington DC."

The closure is expected to last at least 30 days and may stretch well into the Spring. For details on this situation and its impact on West Alabama, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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