Egyptian Suez Canal blockage: Can that happen on the Tennessee River?

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A large cargo ship, reportedly the size of the Empire State building, has been blocking a heavily trafficked shipping canal in Egypt–the Suez Canal.

Ships that size don’t travel through the Tennessee River, or any river in the U.S. for that matter, but a similar situation could happen to barges.

“It’s certainly possible, and it has happened where barges have gotten stopped up on various points of the Tennessee River system,” Matthew Emmons, Navigation Facilities Manager of the East Tennessee River Area for the Nashville District of Army Corps of Engineers, said.

Emmons said the similar situation would have a lot of differences.

The biggest and most obvious difference is boat size.

“Barges come up and down the river and they range anywhere from one barge up to 15-barge tows,” Emmons said.

Emmons said a standard barge is 250 feet long by 35 feet wide. But, there might be one to 15 of those in one tow.

Some barges are larger, depending in what they carry.

Emmons said there is a company that carries liquid asphalt to Knoxville, and those barges are 54 feet wide, by 300 feet long, but they only push a few barges at once.

He said most of the time, if a barge does get stuck, other boats can easily pass around.

It is possible though, for some barges to block the entire waterway, but Emmons said that would be a relatively easy fix, compared to the situation at the Suez Canal.

“See those barges are cabled and ratcheted together. And the tows can be disassembled and taken apart and staged either up stream or down stream,” Emmons said.

Emmons said the financial impact would also not be as big, but still impactful to local businesses if the river was blocked for a day.

Ted Stank, professor of Supply Chain Management at the University of Tennessee in the Haslam College of Business, said the financial impact of the large ship stuck in the Suez grows every day.

As it grows, the reach of the impact also grows.

“So, if you drop a pebble one place, it tends to ripple and then, if there’s enough of those ripples get together, we’ll feel it locally at gas pumps, we’ll feel it potentially at um retail, store shelves as well,” Stank said.

Stank has some experience about how the Suez Canal works, because he’s traveled through it before.

“You’ve ever been stopped at a construction site where there’s only one lane open? And you know, they stop one lane of traffic and they let everybody through on the other side, and they stop that lane and everybody through on this side? That’s how the Suez Canal works,” Stank said.

Stank said that fortunately, most of the products traveling through the canal are heading to Europe or Asia Pacific, not straight to the U.S.

He said most of our imports come through the Asia North American Trade on the west coast.

But, the possibility of having to use that trade route instead is where one local impact could start.

“It will start increasing shipping costs, because shipping companies will reroute tankers and probably pull some tankers from the Asia to North American Trade to make up for those tankers that are stranded and can’t get through on the Asia to Europe Trade,” Stank said.

Stank said gas prices was another.

He said one of the main products that travels through the canal is energy related.

“It’s a mix of manufactured goods, containers and a lot of energy shipments; so, petroleum. Shipments head through there coming in from the various oil fields in the middle east, particularly the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, headed for markets, mainly again, Europe and North Africa,” Stank said.

Stank said that most of the U.S. oil isn’t from exports, however, energy shipments being impacted by the canal blockage could cause gas prices to rise locally.

“What happens in one part of the world kind of affects the energy supply all over the world, and so we may see that at the pumps as an immediate impact,” Stank said.

He said what makes matters worse is that the world is already delayed with shipments due to COVID-19.

“Right now, in addition to the Suez Canal, there’s a major port backup on the US west coast, just because they’ve been hit with such a glut of imported products from major pacific, I think the port is just overrun; doesn’t have the capacity to handle it all,” Stank said.

Stank said the ripple effects of American imports and exports won’t be hugely impacted unless the canal is blocked for a few more weeks.

However, oil could be impacted a little sooner than that.

He said this issue just shows how much we all rely on shipments worldwide.

“This is just one more incident that wakes up to the notion that global trade impacts us all and we only know about it when things go wrong,” Stank said.

But one note he wanted people locally to understand is, they most likely won’t notice anything, again, unless the canal blockage lasts for several weeks.

“Most of our product in North America does not go through the Suez Canal. It will have to be a really, really long issue that’s beyond what we can see right now for us to start seeing that with our consumer goods,” Stank said.

Emmons said East Tennesseans shouldn’t worry about any cargo blockage of the river causing such huge impacts like the large ship blocking the canal.

He said the TVA regulates the depth of the water, making sure it’s at least 9 feet deep for commercial use.

Plus, although barges can be wide and could get stuck, again, it’s a little easier to fix the situation.

“Just reflecting on my own personal experience, I don’t think that the impacts, the duration of it would last as long in that case,” Emmons said.

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