Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced new steps to free up barges on the Mississippi River in an attempt to reduce stress on the grain transportation system caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“USDA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard have been working aggressively to help the transportation system return to normal as quickly as possible along the Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina,” said Johanns. “Our goal is to quickly unload barges so they can be reloaded with newly harvested grains.”

USDA will be accepting proposals on a competitive basis from industry to help unload barges carrying grain commodities, with nearly $7.6 million in funding available for this effort. USDA will not consider offers in excess of $30 per ton, which reflects current barge freight rates.

In order for barges to qualify, they must have been loaded and shipped to the New Orleans area before Aug. 29, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Barges must be unloaded by Dec. 1, 2005, unless USDA issues an extension of that deadline.

The goal of this action is to quickly move empty barges upstream to areas where grains are being harvested. There are no restrictions on the actual off-load location, final destination or disposition of the agricultural commodities.