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Bridge collapse in waterways affect country’s supply chain


The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge has highlighted the importance of America’s supply chain and what can happen if it is disrupted. While Missouri does not have any ports the size of Baltimore it’s ports still are vital to the state’s economy. 

According to the state Port Authority, Missouri waterways move an average of $4.1 billion worth of cargo each year. This includes asphalt, grain, soybeans, corn, sand, scrap metal and steel. 

Jason Branstetter, the operations manager at Capital Sand Company has been working along the Missouri River for 27 years. Capital Sand operates three dredges and six tow boats along the Missouri River. They provide sand used for a variety of things such as beaches, golf courses and hardwood tiles across the state. 

Branstetter said if an accident like the one in Baltimore were to close down one of their ports, it would have significant consequences on their business. 

“It could have a major impact on us if we were needing to either take empty barges out or bring loaded barges in just because of our supply chain,” Branstetter said. “If the timing of it hit when we needed to be passing through that area, it would have a major impact.” 

To help prevent accidents the Missouri Department of Transportation consults with the Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers to make sure bridges along the river are easily navigable. Branstetter said they also take input from companies who operate on the river such as Capital Sand. 

“We have an opportunity to comment and express concerns or something if the bridge spacing isn’t enough or if the height of the bridge clearance isn’t enough,” Branstetter said.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the cargo ship that collided with the Francis Scott Key Bridge lost power before impact. Branstetter said if a tugboat were to lose power on the river, there is little crews can do to stop it. 

“If you’re going upstream, it’s easier to stop because you have water pushing against you to slow you down; think of a tailwind on an airplane. If you’re pushing downstream, you have water pushing you,” Branstetter said. “If you have a power failure or equipment failure of some type on your vessel, that’s where the captain or pilot of the tugboat is limited in what they can do.

If it’s a complete power failure they’re just drifting down the river until they’re able to potentially get the vessel started or whatever mechanical failure they have if they can potentially fix it enough to get it pushed against the riverbank. If you can get it pushed against the riverbank then you can stop.” 

A typical tow along the Missouri River is six-to-eight barges. Each barge weighs an average of 1,500 tons. While colliding with a bridge is a concern, Branstetter said navigating bends in the river is the most difficult part of operating a tug. 

“Every bend in the river has a different dynamic the way the water flows and the speed of the water through those bends,” Branstetter said. 

Pilots also have to worry about ice on the river. If certain sections of the river freeze it is easy for a boat to get stuck until the ice melts because the water is too shallow to move. 

While operating on the river has its challenges, it is vital to the state's economy. Barges are more efficient than using trucks on the highway to move a large volume of commodities and have less of a carbon footprint. 

“The Missouri River is a vital resource to the state of Missouri,” Branstetter said. “The key to the river is it’s cheaper to move product by barge than by truck.”

Branstetter said that in 2023, there were 4.1 million tons of sand and gravel dredged from the Missouri River between four dredging companies from St. Louis to Kansas City.  Other cargo transported on the river, consists of grain (corn and soybeans), fertilizer, Portland cement, scrap steel, limestone, construction equipment and windmill blades for wind electrical generation --- these products total around 900,000-1,000,000 tons per year.

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Mitchell Kaminski

Mitchell Kaminski is from Wheaton, Illinois. He earned a degree in sports communication and journalism from Bradley University. He has done radio play-by-play and co-hosts a Chicago White Sox podcast.


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