Tidewater to lay off 200 for 3 months

Cuts correspond with shutdown of Columbia River locks

By Libby Clark, Columbian Web Editor

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Vancouver-based Tidewater Barge Co. will lay off about 200 employees this December in response to a planned shutdown of three Columbia River locks, according to the company.

Starting Dec. 10, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will close the navigational locks at The Dalles, John Day and Lower Monumental dams for three months in order to replace the lock gates. Announced more than a year ago, the work will stop all barge traffic east of The Dalles, Ore., until the upgrades are complete around March 18.

Because the majority of Tidewater’s business occurs upriver, the company plans a temporary layoff for the period of the closure. But replacing the locks is necessary to maintain its business long-term, said John Pigott, a spokesman for Tidewater. Employees were notified well in advance, he said.

The holiday timing is unfortunate, Pigott said, but it’s timed to best protect endangered salmon. Conservation biologists rely on the open locks to barge salmon past the dams for spawning.

Tidewater will maintain its lower river activities, including its business at the ports of Vancouver and Portland, and upriver activities beyond the closures, Pigott said.

Aging gates

Temporary maintenance closures happen routinely on the Columbia and Snake River system each March for about two weeks, said Kristin Meira, a spokeswoman for the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association in Portland. But like much of the country’s transportation infrastructure, the aging gates are nearing the end of their lifespan. Replacing the gates now with this “unprecedented” 14-week closure will help prevent a catastrophic failure that could shut down river traffic for up to a year, she said.

“While it will be a short-term challenge for commerce in the Northwest,” Meira said, “the long-term benefits will be tremendous as far as the reliability of the inland barging system.”

On the flip side, the fabrication and installation of the gates has also generated welding and construction jobs for companies with Vancouver ties, including Oregon Iron Works.

The Army Corps will spend $14 million to $20 million per gate to replace them, with a portion of the funding coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.