While Congress debates more funding, Olmsted construction presses on


On a pleasant morning in August, Jon Leite, a diver with Global Diving & Salvage, entered the Ohio River between Cairo, Ill., and Paducah, Ky., and disappeared into what is arguably the most scrutinized project on America’s inland river system.

The word eternity rises to describe the timeline of the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, begun in 1997 to replace the aging and crumbling locks 52 and 53, built in the 1920s. Originally expected to be completed in 2008, new projections put completion in 2020 — or 2024 if you include demolishing the existing locks.

From a viewpoint above the site, the scene below resembles a Hollywood set with monolithic equipment looking like temples to the God, Aqua. The new lock structures look like elongated moats straddled by a castle emboldened with the medieval insignia of the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

Nick Finney, a supervisor with Global Diving & Salvage, demonstrates the pile and sheet interlocking system at the multi-billion-dollar construction site near Paducah, Ky.

Over-budget Hollywood epics pale in comparison to the cost overruns of the Olmsted project. Originally estimated to cost about $775 million, it is now projected to cost $3.1 billion when it is finished. However, weather, river conditions and funding fluctuations — issues that are in part blamed for the delays and cost explosion of the past — are still there for the project to contend with in the future. But the main culprit has been identified as the construction process adopted by the Corps to build the dam.

According to the USACE, the old locks are the highest-tonnage locks in the nation’s barge transportation system, rendering the replacement project necessary despite the ever-increasing cost. The deteriorating structures needed constant and expensive maintenance and repair. As a temporary measure during the ’60s and ’70s, the lock chambers were lengthened from 600 feet to 1,200 feet to accommodate the larger tows that theretofore were required to lock through twice, a process that creates tow backups and drives up the cost of barge transportation.

The locks portion of the project, consisting of two 110-by-1,200-foot lock chambers located along the Illinois shoreline, was completed by the Corps in 2002. Idle, they await the dam, a structure that, when complete, will consist of five Tainter gates and a 1,400-foot navigable pass and wicket dam. A Tainter gate, named for structural engineer Jeremiah Tainter, is a radial arm floodgate. URS, an international engineering and construction company, was contracted in a joint venture with Alberici Constructors to construct the dam.

Stilling Shell 5 is attached to the transport frame and on its cradle.

The dam, at mile marker 964.4, will create an upriver pool extending to the Smithland Lock and Dam at mile marker 918.5. The pool will encompass the confluence of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers with the Ohio River, including the inland river transportation hub of Paducah, Ky., dubbed the towboat capital of the inland river system.

The Corps has weathered a barrage of criticism for the cost and inefficiencies of the project that has siphoned off the lion’s share of money for infrastructure construction and repair from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The fund’s coffer is composed of a 50/50 split between federal general treasury money and a 20-cent-per-gallon tax on fuel burned by the barge and towing industry.

Most of the criticism concerns the Corps’ choice of construction methods for the dam portion of the project. Instead of building a conventional cofferdam around the construction site, they chose a process called “in-the-wet,” whereby the massive concrete sill components are precast on land and transported on the river to the site and set in place. The Corps could not attract bidders for a traditional fixed-price contract because of the unknowns and the risk that “in-the-wet” construction presented in the deep and fluctuating lower Ohio River. The present joint venture to construct the dam was created in 2002 and is a cost-plus contract.

The unproven methodology was adopted after a Corps study determined that fabricating in-the-wet would be faster and less expensive than building a cofferdam. But in practice, that theory has been turned inside out.

Each Tainter gate consists of a sill shell, stilling basin shell and a lower pier shell. There are 12 additional shells that make up the navigable pass that will take the wickets. The precast shells are 2 feet thick with a waffle pattern on the underside to keep weight down for transport. The shells must be moved carefully to prevent cracking.

“This type of construction, on this scale, has never been done before,” said Wade Miller, marine engineering manager for URS.

As each sill is completed, a 45-foot-high lifting frame is attached and a 5,000-ton gantry crane, the largest of its kind in the world, is moved over the frame. The frame is attached utilizing the world’s largest strand jacks, lifted, and then set down on a large cradle. The frame, shell and cradle are then moved at one-foot per minute down a skid-way into the water where the world’s largest catamaran barge waits.

A tug moves the barge over the lifting frame and locks onto the frame with bolts turned by the world’s largest torque wrench. The frame and sill are lifted off the cradle and floated into position over a foundation that is spiked with 140 24-inch pipe foundation piles and 22 master piles. Each pile has to be driven precisely one inch horizontally and a quarter inch vertically to accept the incoming shells. Once the sill is set in place, the void between the underside of the shell and the foundation is filled with tremie concrete, placed utilizing tremie pipes. Tremie concrete is concrete that is placed underwater.


On a boat tour of the site, Miller explained the makeup of the dam. “There are five bays of Tainter gates that control the flow of water when the wicket portion of the navigable channel is up. When the river’s water level drops, the wickets are raised to fill the upstream pool and the tows have to lock through. When the river is high enough, the wickets are down and the tows utilize the navigable portion of the river.”

Pile driver Dale Rarrick, left, works the comealong while diver Jon Leite checks an interlock.

At the dam site, a crane barge with a hydraulically actuated pile-driving template mounted along its side is anchored across from the dive barge. The template, purpose-built for the project and located utilizing real-time GPS and surveyors, provides for precise pile-driving in anticipation of the sills. The template secures multiple piles on leads that can adjust each pile to keep it plumb while it is driven.

The dive barge is the working platform for Seattle-based Global Diving & Salvage, contracted in 2007 to work on the Tainter gate foundations, among other sub-surface duties. This is Global’s fifth construction season on site. The construction season is whenever the water level is low — usually June to November — but it fluctuates. One primary assignment is to burn the foundation piles off at grade to present a uniform level for the sills to sit on.

On the dive barge, Miller discussed project details with Global Diving’s day supervisor, Nick Finney. Originally the dam project did not call for divers. However, in-the-wet construction requires a great deal of diver participation, much of it difficult and dangerous in murky swift-flowing water. “The divers have from 12 to 24 inches of visibility down there,” said Finney. “It’s a bit like finding a light switch in the dark.”

Finney takes time to explain Global’s part in the project. “The area we are working on is the Tainter master left wall (facing Kentucky). Jon (Leite, the diver) is aligning pile and sheet (pile) interlocks at the isolation pile (an isolation pile accommodates seismic loads). This is the wall that surrounds the footprint where the shells are set.” Once the perimeter is closed, the divers will clean debris from the foundation footprint and work below the surface assisting in the placement of tremie concrete in the shell voids and under the sill, when ss5, the fifth stilling shell, is set on the foundation.

“This is one of the most important waterways projects going on in the U.S., and Global Diving is an important part of it,” said Miller. “They also assist us with pile driving, underwater concrete patching and general inspection activities.”

“We did 1,473 dives last year, 3,300 hours of bottom time,” said Mark Wise, Global’s lead dive safety officer. “That makes us, arguably, the busiest dive site within the Corps.”

“At the present pace we’re on, and if the river cooperates, we’ll equal that this year,” said Finney.

Global Diving & Salvage diver/tenders Ben Swan and Ed Meyer with the isolation pile, center, on the hydraulically actuated pile-driving template.

Leite surfaced to look over the angle of the isolation pile at the surface. Tenders Ben Swan and Ed Meyer navigated his dive hose around equipment on the barge. In a conversation later, Leite pointed out the significance of working in a heavy current. “Working in a lake with no current is much different than working in a river with 2 to 3 knots of it. The current makes everything harder because you have to hang on. If you don’t, you’ll be swept downriver. The pile is also moving more with the flow of the river,” he said.

“I was threading (aligning) an isolation pile to the sheet pile. The isolation pile is round and has inner locks on three sides. Because of the guide structure, barge layout and crane position, the pile was not aligning properly. I had to use three chain falls (come-alongs) to pull the isolation pile over and get the inner locks to line up.”

One of the come-along setups was operated by Dale Rarrick, a URS pile driver, on the dive barge in radio contact with Leite. Rarrick, responding to Leite’s instructions, cranked on a come-along to adjust the top of the pile hanging on the crane’s hook. “I’m helping the diver so that he doesn’t have to move it by hand below when he’s threading up the pile into the interlocking sheets (sheet piles),” said Rarrick, pulling the top of the pile toward Kentucky.

“I had two other chain falls in the water,” said Leite, “one turning the isolation pile about 30 degrees and the second pulling it to the inner lock on the sheet pile.”

The precise tolerances for setting piles that will take the sills make for painstakingly slow progress, but the project must go on. According to the Corps, with some 90 billion tons of materials such as coal, grain and petroleum, among others, transiting the Olmsted stretch of the Ohio River, the nation will reap $685 million in annual benefit from reduced shipping costs.

However, the Olmsted Locks and Dam project has been gorging on the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, denying resources for other inland waterways projects. Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) and American Waterways Operators (AWO) are advocating to change the funding system for the Olmsted project. The WCI and AWO are national organizations advocating for shippers and operators respectively.

Their objective is to persuade the federal government to provide the remaining $1.6 billion or so to finish the Olmsted project and free up the Inland Waterways Trust Fund coffers to pay for neglected waterways projects decaying in the shadow of Olmsted. They support a proposal by the barge transportation industry to increase the fuel tax by 6 cents per gallon to beef up the treasure chest in order to accelerate fixing and extending the nation’s waterways infrastructure.

The Senate has passed a bill, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), S. 601, directing the general treasury fund to pay 100 percent of the remaining construction cost of the Olmsted project. Another version, passed in the House, calls for a 75/25 percent split from the general treasury fund and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to finish Olmsted. Members of both houses are working to merge the two bills in conference committee.

“Olmsted is a very important project,” said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of WCI. “A lot of time and money have been spent on it, but we think it has a very good return on investment. But we’ve got to fund it in a different way.” Otherwise, Colbert said that other projects needing funding may never get finished. She projects that new locks on the Upper Mississippi that are very important to Midwest farmers who need to transport their harvested crops by barge may not fill their chambers until 2090.

“So that’s why we are calling for the federal government’s general treasury fund to pay for the remainder of the $1.5 billion dollars left to finish the project,” said Colbert. “So many of these navigation projects are great value, great return on investment. The Chamber of Commerce just came out with some statistics: For every $1 in investment in a navigation project, $10 is returned to the nation’s economy in terms of transportation cost savings and benefits to consumers.”

“The priority right now is to get these piles driven,” said Finney. “Once we get the piles driven we can start the footprint cleanup and set ss5.”

By Professional Mariner Staff