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News / Business / Clark County Business

United Grain regains stride after Bonneville Lock closure

During lock's 3-week shutdown for emergency repairs, company adjusted to meet wheat customers' needs

By Will Campbell, Columbian Associate Editor
Published: October 1, 2019, 6:01am
3 Photos
A vessel named the Agios Nikolas receives a load of red wheat Monday as it stops at United Grain Corporation at the Port of Vancouver on its way to Vietnam.
A vessel named the Agios Nikolas receives a load of red wheat Monday as it stops at United Grain Corporation at the Port of Vancouver on its way to Vietnam. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As soon as the Bonneville Lock closed for emergency repairs more than three weeks ago, workers at United Grain knew that barge traffic would come to an abrupt stop.

Six barges hauling about 65,000 metric tons of wheat each wouldn’t arrive as scheduled. Empty ships would have to wait at the Port of Vancouver. Customers in foreign countries who needed their grain would face delays.

Looking back, John Lindgren, United Grain terminal director, said the impact wasn’t catastrophic, but it caused workers to scramble to reroute grain while the stock decreased.

“The lock closure didn’t affect too much,” he said. “But we were on fumes.”

Since the lock reopened on Friday evening, four of United Grain’s six barges had passed through the lock and unloaded at the Port of Vancouver, according to Lindgren. United Grain should have caught up on its backlog of work by mid-October.

Wheat from barges accounts for about 15 percent of United Grain’s stock at any given time, Lindgren said. The rest comes by rail, as does beans and corn, which accounts for 60 percent of the product in the company’s silos.

United Grain had to use more railcars during the closure, but it wasn’t a significant amount, he said.

On Monday, a stream of hard red wheat poured through a tube and into the Agios Nikolas, a ship headed for Vietnam. Lindgren said that switching the order of loading ships was one way to get around the lock closure. The company likely would have loaded another ship first if the lock hadn’t closed, he said.

Having the lock fail in September wasn’t more of a strain because it took place at the end of the harvest season.

A typical August, during the heat of the harvest, brings about 50 barges from upriver, and September brings about 25, Lindgren said.

Since the lock broke, nine barges have passed through in the month of September, and Lindgren said he expects to be caught up with all the delayed work by Oct. 12.

“October will be busier than usual,” he said.

The backlog of white wheat didn’t affect the workers or require extra overtime because United Grain is a round-the-clock operation, Lindgren said.

“We go full speed all the time,” he said.

Tidewater, a barge transportation company, will clear the backlog of vessels waiting to transit Bonneville by the weekend, said spokeswoman Jennifer Riddle.

Workers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noticed the doors of the Bonneville Lock malfunctioning on Sept. 5. The next day they discovered a crack in the concrete sill. After shutting down the lock and destroying the old sill, workers used 22 concrete trucks to pour the concrete for a new sill.

A lack of rain caused the sill to cure faster, allowing the Corps to open the lock three days earlier than anticipated.