Mid-Columbia public transportation today remained at a virtual standstill and a halt to barge traffic raised the possibility of a gasoline shortage throughout the region.
Ray Hickey, manager of Tidewater Barge Lines, a major supplier of petroleum products to the Tri-Cities, said the blockage of the Columbia River at Longview by mud and debris from Mount St. Helens "could create a critical situation.
He said while some gasoline comes to Portland by pipeline from Puget Sound, most of Tidewater's supply comes via ocean-going ships, which cannot get through the blocked river passage.
Ruth Fones, with Tidewater's terminal in Pasco, said the company supplies Shell, Union and Arco stations. She said Chevron gets much of its supply through the Salt Lake pipeline, but it also depends on barged products.
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It's difficult to tell the demand on the Tidewater terminal here, she said, because delivery trucks have not been able to get through ashclogged roads to areas north and east of the Tri-Cities.
"If the roads clear and the trucks get through, we might have a big drawdown," Mrs. Fones said. "Otherwise, normally we would have a 30-day supply on hand."
Hickey said dredging operations began today at Longview in an attempt to clear a 25-foot deep, 200-foot-wide channel to permit daytime ocean traffic.
That is supposed to take a week, he said but if that doesn't work, barge and shipping companies at Portland will be in trouble.
"Grain elevators here are full and there's no way we can barge more grain down here," Hickey said. He said Tidewater's tugs are being tied up at various ports along the upper Columbia and Snake rivers.
Meanwhile, for a third straight day, Hughes Airwest has been unable to fly at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco.
"Although it looks like a sunny day, the particles in the air are abrasive and ruin plane engines," station manager Max Andrus said. He said a United Airlines aircraft that flew out of the Spokane airport had to have three engines replaced.
Airwest hopes to have operations resumed by Memorial Day weekend, Andrus said.
Cascade Airways is operating except to closed airports in Spokane, Yakima, Wenatchee, Moses Lake and Pullman, a spokesman said.
A Greyhound Bus spokesman in Spokane said his firm is uncertain when it can resume service in East-ern Washington. Arthur Lloyd, Amtrak spokesman in San Francisco, said rail passenger service east and west should be restored by this weekend. He said the first train from Seattle will leave Thursday night.
The ash fall also has closed meatpacking plants in Ellensburg and Toppenish because of dirty hides, State Sen. Sid Morrison, R-Zillah, said Tuesday.
The decision to close Schaake Beef in Ellensburg and Washington Beef in Toppenish was unwarranted, he said, because all tests have shown the ash to be inert and non-toxic.
The Toppenish plant was scheduled to resume slaughter operations today at 11 a.m., said Dick Dotzler, of Washington Beef, Yakima.
Iowa Beef's packing plant at Wallula has not been closed, a company spokesman said.
But with every ash cloud there appears a silver lining. Kennewick and Richland book stores reported they sold out of big supplies of the book, "Fire and Ice," an account of Mount St. Helens and other Cascade mountains.
The Mid-Columbia Regional Libraries two copies are checked out, a spokesman said, and six copies are on order to meet demand.
Auto part stores report a run on air filters and lubrication supplies. The Kennewick K-Mart sold most of its filters and had to restock shelves, a clerk said.
The clerk said people came from as far as Yakima to buy filters.
Russ Dean Ford in Pasco has been doing a brisk business in servicing cars with engine problems from the ash. One mechanic said, however, cars could be driven several thousand miles before the engine problems would begin to appear.
But the volcanic ash has had other fallouts, Business has been "terrible" at Richland's Holiday Inn, said Yvonne Parish, assistant manager.
She said a state sheriffs and police chiefs convention scheduled Thursday through Saturday, that included talks by Gov. Dixy Lee Ray and Attorney General Slade Gorton, has been canceled.
Paul Myers, a co-owner of the Mark and Pak stores, said one truck from Seattle finally got through Tuesday night bringing meat and produce. The stores had run out of some items.
Normal sources for bread, dairy products and other items in Seattle and Yakima have not been available, so the store turned to Oregon sources, he said.
All highways out of the Tri-Cities remain closed except 14 south to Umatilla, 240 to the Yakima barricade and 12 to Lewiston.
A Washington State Patrol spokesman said seven semi trucks attempting to reach Spokane on Highway 395 burned out engines and had to be abandoned. The trucks carried emergency food and pharmaceutical supplies.
School districts in Othello, Royal City, Connell and Warden remained closed today, but Kahlotus schools opened. Othello police continued a 10-mile-per-hour speed limit in town.
The Bonneville Power Administration has scheduled outages all over Eastern Washington to clean lines and substations of the ash, but most customers will not notice because alternate power sources will be used, a spokesman said.
Work returned to normal at Department of Energy installations and Washington Public Power Supply System nuclear projects at Hanford, spokesman for both agencies said.