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Tennessee River closed to barge traffic due to flooding and swift currents

A lock on the Tennessee River ( Photo: TVA )

Artery for goods ranging from coal to oil to grain closed in wake of historic rainfalls.

The Tennessee River is closed to all commercial vessel traffic as higher-than-normal rainfall cause flooding and swift currents along the river.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed nine locks on the main stem of the river that are used by commercial vessels, said Tennessee Valley Authority (NYSE: TVC) spokesman Scott Brooks. That effectively shuts the 650-mile navigable stretch from Paducah, Kentucky to Knoxville, Tennessee.  

Rainfall levels that are triple historical averages across the Tennessee Valley are causing dam spillovers along the Tennessee River, creating high currents, heavy flooding and turbulence.

The TVA said that between five and 12 inches of rain fell over parts of Tennessee last week, causing the severe flooding.

Brooks said the Pickwick and Kentucky locks at the mouth of the Tennessee River are at record levels. The Tennessee River has not seen flooding like this since 2010, Brooks said.

The Corps is waiting for the “flows to go down,” Brooks said. “We’re dealing with a large volume of water.”

The TVA, which manages navigation on the river, said “barge traffic is practically at a standstill” all the way down to the Mississippi River due to the flooding. Until the high waters recede, barges will likely be idle for several days, the TVA said.

The U.S. Coast Guard said that at the Chickamauga lock one downbound and two upbound barges are halted due to the closures.

Among companies potentially affected by the flooding are Westlake Chemical (NYSE: WLK), which has a major chemical plant at Calvert City, Kentucky and Seacor Marine Holdings (NYSE: SMHI), which provides barge towing service along the Tennessee River. The companies declined comment on operations along the Tennessee River.

The Corps said some 35.7 million tons of commodities were moved on the Tennessee River during 2017, a 10 percent drop from the year earlier.

Coal volumes shipped along the river have fallen 37 percent since 2013 as the TVA reduces its dependence on coal-fired electricity generation.

Tennesse could catch a break from the wet weather with forecasts showing dry conditions through Wednesday, according to SONAR’s new weather layer.