Mississippi River from Water Campus

A vessel moves down the Mississippi River, with the view from the dock of the Water Campus near downtown Baton Rouge across from the Port of Greater Baton Rouge.

After 30 years as a river pilot, Capt. Robert Heitmeier says he has never seen such a swift moving Mississippi River and saturated levee as over the past year.

That's nearly how long the also-chairman and fellow members of the Board of Examiners of the New Orleans – Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots have kept in place a ban on night time river shipments that finally could be coming to an end.

That will depend on the volume of rain from the most recent storms upriver and whether the river level drops slightly as predicted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the pilots who navigate the Mississippi in the Baton Rouge area,  Heitmeier said.

The move would be welcomed by petrochemical giants spread along the river, like ExxonMobil which has lobbied the river pilot board for months over concerns about costs it has incurred because river travel is restricted to daylight hours when its plants operate 24 hours a day.

Heitmeier, who lives in Metairie, said he's been negotiating with industry leaders and is considering lifting the travel restriction by the end of the week. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber called off a Tuesday news conference about the restrictions, apparently in hopes the issue will be resolved.

Heitmeier defended the night travel ban citing months of heavy rainfall throughout 2019, even during July when the river level often drops. Instead, Louisiana faced Hurricane Barry and the threat of the river potentially topping levees that month.

He also noted that over the past few months the board has been shrinking the scope of the river navigating restrictions between mile markers — akin to ones on a highway. As of Wednesday, night travel for river boat pilots is restricted between mile marker 192 and 234, which stretches from roughly Baton Rouge to Donaldsonville. In April 2019, it was restricted between mile marker 88 near New Orleans and 234 near downtown Baton Rouge.

Heitmeier is the top executive who decided alongside his board members, with the advice of the National Transportation Safety Board — an independent federal agency — in April 2019 to restrict river boat pilots from operating vessels at night in the stretch of river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The river bends just south of Baton Rouge are considered the most dangerous stretch for river pilots due to congestion and the way long ships carrying raw materials for the petrochemical industry must back up to make it around tight curves, Heitmeier said.

In 2019, there were 14,000 ship movements in the organization's territory over the year. Ship movements refer to when a ship arrives and docks, which is one movement, but each ship could have up to five movements along its path.

River pilots in general have been feeling extremely stressed about the prolonged river conditions for the past 10 months, and night time navigation would be even more stressful, he said. 

In the past few weeks, there have been two incidents involving industry vessels on the river. Near the Luling Bridge, several people died and a ship sank after a 5:30 a.m. collision between two tug boat operators, one of whom had two barges carrying sulfuric acid

On Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard closed the Intracoastal Waterway after a towing vessel with barges of rock ran aground at mile marker 99 near Berwick at about 10 p.m. on Sunday. 

During the day, the Mississippi River looks deep and wide, but at night it often shrinks in breadth and depth, so large ships must stay in the middle of the channel where the river is dredged because it's the only place deep enough to keep moving without incident, Heitmeier said. 

He said large ships traveling in a swift current are akin to tractor-trailers driving down a snowy mountain pass, where drivers sometimes are forced to cross the double yellow line. The slower the ship moves, the less control the river pilot has on where it's headed.

"It's like a tractor trailer on ice. We can't back up on a ship, (to head around a bend) once we do that we have minimal control," Heitmeier said.

In a worst-case scenario, a ship could touch the side of a levee while it's trying to navigate tight bends in traffic. Usually that's not a big deal, but when the levee has been saturated with rain and high water for 10 months in a row, the walls of the levee are especially weak. The fear is that a ship would punch a hole in the levee, which would cause destruction and flooding. 

"Our biggest concern was making sure that none of these ships were coming close to touching the levee because if you touch it 10 months saturated you're going to go right through it," he said. 

Sometimes ships do scrape the sides of the levee, which can weaken it over time and is difficult to repair, especially when underwater, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. A ship punching through would be unlikely. The Corps of Engineers sends inspectors to check on the levee mile by mile during a time like this to ensure its integrity. 

Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.