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September 28, 2013

Closure of locks limits use of Monongahela

Commercial traffic fall leads to ‘vicious cycle’

FAIRMONT — The Monongahela River is a treasure to North Central West Virginia.

The quality of its water and abundance of aquatic life are vastly improved from past years.

But at the same time, the Opekiska and Hildebrand locks are essentially closed, and access to the Morgantown lock and dam is restricted to weekdays. This crimps the time the public can access the river, said a group of local fishing and watershed groups gathered Friday at Morgantown’s Waterfront Hotel to talk about the river and its importance.

And it could hinder such events as the B.A.S.S. Nation of West Virginia’s Northern Qualifier tournament at Pricketts Fort on Oct. 5 and 6.

A tournament like this will bring up to 60 fishermen, each pumping hundreds of dollars over those two days ito the local economy.

Keeping these locks open is vital for such tournaments.

“The closure of the Opekiska and Hildebrand locks limits the use of 13 miles of river,” said Jim Summers, vice president, B.A.S.S. Nation, West Virginia.

“Improved catch rate and accessibility to the river attract fishermen,” he said. “Without the locks and dams, we could not have the tournament.”

“The Mon River is the economic engine for the region. Its locks and dams are critical for commerce and economic development of West Virginia,” said Barry Pallay, president, Upper Mon River Association.

Coal, gas, limestone were once carried by barge and ship north to Pittsburgh, “driving our economy,” he said.

Commercial traffic has plummeted almost to zero, he said, with fishing and boating growing to become industries. But since Oct. 1, 2012, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has closed the Opekiska and Hildebrand locks, and left the Morgantown lock and dam closed on weekends.

“As a result of the Clean Air Act, commercial tonnage from Opekiska to Hildebrand has dropped to almost zero,” he said. “No commercial passages means that they are effectively closed permanently.

“It’s important we maintain the locks in good operating order, get the tonnage backup and work with the Corps to get the locks back open.”

“About half a billion tons of coal were produced in this basin of 10 counties since 1996,” said Bill Raney, president, West Virginia Coal Association.

“This generated about $14 billion, and 4,000 people were working directly in the industry each of those years.

“But the lack of commercial traffic caused the squeeze from the Corps. From the commercial side of things, we need these locks open. Moving coal by water is so much more economic than by rail.”

“We stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, gas up our boats and cars,” said Tim Mitchem, president, B.A.S.S. Nation, West Virginia.

“If these locks are not kept open, we can’t hold these events here, and that money goes away to another community.

“This is a fantastic fishery. We want the public to understand how wonderful this river is.

“The locks were closed because the Corps didn’t have the funding to maintain them. They had to reduce their operations and tighten their budget.

“The locks were built mainly for commercial traffic. And with no commercial traffic, they saw no reason to keep them open. And if they’re closed, there is no commercial traffic. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s all tied to the coal industry.

“Recreational traffic never played in their minds.

“The Army Corps of Engineers is generous to give us six days to open the locks. Oct. 5 and 6 will be the last of the year that the locks will be open, and the public can go up and down the pools.”

The Mon River is “absolutely importation” to the area, he said.

“Look at the money invested in the rail trails. Fairmont is putting in a new boat ramp to help accommodate us.

“But when you have two pools of water shut off from the public, we can’t have a tournament.”

To reopen the locks, he said to write to government officials, “Senator Manchin, the governor, your chamber of commerce and tell them you want something done to keep the locks open.

“The more public pressure, the better chance we have.”

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.

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