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U.S. Coast Guard shuts part of lower Mississippi River as bridge cracks

By Tom Polansek

May 12 (Reuters) - More than 400 barges were delayed on the lower Mississippi River on Wednesday after a bridge crack prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to halt vessel traffic on a portion of the waterway crucial for shipping crops to export markets.

The disruption hit as strong demand for U.S. corn and soybeans has tightened inventories and pushed crop prices to their highest in more than eight years. Also, U.S. President Joe Biden is seeking to have Congress approve a $2.25 trillion infrastructure bill.

The Coast Guard stopped all traffic on the Mississippi River near Memphis - between mile markers 736 and 737 - after a crack was discovered in the Hernando de Soto Bridge that spans the river, according to a statement.

There were 12 vessels with 157 barges in the queue to pass northbound and 16 vessels with 254 barges in the queue to go southbound, Lieutenant Mark Pipkin, a Coast Guard spokesman, told Reuters. The barges are carrying a mix of materials including crude oil and dry cargo like corn or rocks, he said.

Pipkin said it is not known when the river will reopen.

The bridge carries I-40 over the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee, to West Memphis, Arkansas.

Almost all grain barges must pass underneath the bridge on their way to Gulf of Mexico export facilities near New Orleans after being loaded along the upper Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois or Missouri rivers, according to the Soy Transportation Coalition, an agricultural industry group.

For the week ending May 1, 438 grain barges moved down river and 809 grain barges unloaded in New Orleans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

"Any suspension of traffic – even temporarily – on the Mississippi River is most unwelcome to U.S. agriculture," said Mike Steenhoek, the coalition's executive director.

"It is reasonable to assume hundreds of barges of U.S. grain will be negatively impacted by the closure depending on its duration." (Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Nakul Iyer and Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru Editing by Chris Reese and Grant McCool)

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