Moving goods on barges is big business. But it’s a part of the economy that floats precariously on infrastructure in dire need of an overhaul.  (Photo: Ryan Loew)

Deckhands Jeremy Groves and Dustin Frazee descend from the towboat D.L. Johnson to inspect their cargo—which today, is a single barge of coal. They circle the barge, walking along its edges—the gunnels—to make sure everything looks OK. Satisfied, they pick up Kevlar lines and loop them around the barge’s timberheads. A 40-ton winch aboard the D.L. Johnson pulls the barge snug against the boat. That way, the cargo won’t wander as it’s pushed down the upper reaches of the Ohio River.

For Captain Matthew Baumgartner, who’s watching from the wheelhouse, it’s easy to see why his crew’s work on the water is important.

“We move a lot of coal for power plants and steel mills,” he says.

And that keeps the lights on for millions of homes across the region.

LISTEN: Why the Lock and Dam System Still Matters

The D.L. Johnson is one of thousands of vessels chugging along the nation’s vast inland waterway system, which stretches for 12,000 navigable miles from the Gulf of Mexico to Minnesota—and a little ways east and west. The waterways are considered one of the cheapest, most environmentally friendly options for transporting goods—particularly as trucks and rail near capacity.

The towboats carry crews who work for weeks at a time: Fourteen days on, seven days off—or 20 days on and seven days off—depending on the boat. Moving things by water in Pennsylvania and West Virginia generates about $8 billion annually and supports almost 50,000 jobs.

But it doesn’t happen naturally. There’s a lot of infrastructure involved. Dams hold back water to create long, navigable pools; locks allow boats to move from one pool to the next. Together, they form a sort of water escalator that allows boats to get over elevation changes.

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Deckhand Dustin Frazee (center) and lead deckhand Jeremy Groves look out over the Ohio River as their towboat, the D.L. Johnson, pushes a coal barge. Photo: Ryan Loew

The D.L. Johnson picks up its coal barge just offshore from Congo, West Virginia. It’s there, right below some of the oldest locks on the upper Ohio River, that doing business gets tough. Ryan Newton is the manager of linehaul vessel operations for Campbell Transportation Company, Inc.—the company that owns the D.L. Johnson. For starters, he says the locks on the Ohio River start to get smaller as you head east toward Pittsburgh.

“All the lock chambers up until this point are 1,200 feet long,” Newton says. “When you get to Georgetown, and effectively Montgomery Lock, which is around the bend, it’s a 600-foot chamber.”

A 1,200-foot lock chamber fits a standard tow: five barges long and three barges wide, with room for a boat. A smaller lock means breaking a tow into smaller pieces, and then moving them through separately. So the difference in lock size means lost time.

But the bigger problem is that the region’s locks and dams are crumbling.

Marc Glowczewski is a project manager with the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He and his team recently completed a study of what it would take to rehabilitate and replace the first three locks on Pittsburgh’s end of the Ohio River: Montgomery, Dashields and Emsworth. He says that by 2028, there’s a 50 percent probability one of them could fail.

“I don’t want to say it’s a flip of the coin because that sounds trite,” Glowczewski  says. “But at a 50 percent probability, that’s just as likely to happen as not. And so that makes it kind of—terrifying.”

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Photo: Ryan Loew

It would take about $5 billion to bring the locks and dams on the upper Ohio and lower Monongahela Rivers up to snuff. If a dam fails, there could be flooding, which could threaten the availability of municipal drinking water. And shipping in the region would grind to a halt.

“You’d be able to walk across, shore to shore, at the point of Pittsburgh and get your ankles wet—and that’s it,” Glowczewski says.

That’s why many are continuing to push for a major update of the region’s locks and dams. Among them is Mary Ann Bucci, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, which advocates for lock rehabilitation and funding along the port’s 200 river miles. And she says an overhaul isn’t just good for the region; it’s important for the rest of the country.

“We are part of a system,” she says. “The more efficient and the more reliable the system is, the more successful the entire system will be. And if we’re not functioning, you’re cutting off part of the highway, so to speak.”

Mike Monahan, president of Campbell Transportation Company, also worries about the impact outdated locks and dams could have on Pennsylvania’s long game.

“You look at future economic investment. I don’t think anybody in this country would take a 100-year-old foundation and build a new home on it,” he says.

In this analogy, the 100-year-old foundation is the region’s water infrastructure. And the new home? Monahan says that’s a potential new sector built around the region’s energy resources—most notably, a spinoff petrochemical industry that could ride the coattails of the fracking boom.

But Monahan says if infrastructure remains unreliable, we’ll see something very different.

“The failure of future economic development for all the people in western PA.”

WATCH: Towboat Deckhands, the Ohio River’s Unsung Heroes

For example, this summer, Shell Chemical Appalachia announced it is building an ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, a short distance from the shores of the Ohio River near Pittsburgh. The plant will turn ethane from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale into the building blocks of plastics. To the Port of Pittsburgh Commission’s Mary Ann Bucci, Shell coming to Pittsburgh is a game-changer.

“You’ll also have offspring companies that will come in that either need to use your product [or] sell to Shell,” Bucci says. “And I think you’re going to see that whole petrochemical market increase.”

However, Bucci says it looks as though Shell will only use the waterways during the construction—possibly because of reliability issues with the locks and dams. Shell did not return a request for comment. But Bucci says updating the waterway infrastructure could help the region cash in on another big industry: moving shipping containers.

“It’s been successful on every other mode of transportation. There’s no reason why it cannot be successful on the inland waterways,” she says.

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Photo: Ryan Loew

The container industry, which often moves consumer goods like electronics, is a high-value business. The Port of Pittsburgh is working with other ports nationwide to fine-tune the logistics. And individual companies, including Mike Monahan’s Campbell Transportation, are re-orienting themselves too. But he says the future is coming on fast. And unless the region acts, we’ll miss out.

“I have a saying, it’s probably a little hokey, but prior proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. We need to have that planning and we need to reinvest so we’re ready for this world economy.”

While it will take years, several billion dollars and some serious coordination, everyone is hopeful the region can fix its aging locks and dams. Even Congress is now back on schedule to approve and fund water resource projects.

Monahan calls the country’s waterway system “a blessing from God.” But getting around on them? He says that’s up to us.

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This story is part of our Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and is produced in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.