April 9 (Reuters) - Mississippi River barge traffic could reopen Friday at the earliest, government officials said on Wednesday, a day after a barge struck a railroad bridge at Sabula, Iowa, forcing the closure of a two-mile (3.2 km) stretch of the country's busiest waterway.
The U.S. Coast Guard was investigating damage to the railroad bridge owned by Canadian Pacific Railroad Ltd while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was traveling to the site to survey the waters for any debris.
"Currently the river is closed to vessel traffic. It will be closed through Friday at least," said Mike Reed, chief of prevention for the Coast Guard's upper Mississippi River sector.
A vessel towing 15 barges upriver hit the bridge on Tuesday, damaging a portion of the protective pier. The bridge was not structurally damaged and reopened to train traffic by 6 p.m. CDT (2300 GMT) on Tuesday, said Canadian Pacific spokesman Ed Greenberg.
"There were no trains on or near the bridge when the accident took place," Greenberg said.
But the Coast Guard's Reed said river will remain closed to barge traffic until the pier is repaired and it is determined that no debris will hamper vessels from passing.
The barges involved in the accident were transporting dry cargoes, Reed said, adding that he did not know exactly what they were shipping.
It is common for barges to carry fertilizer or salt upstream and ship grains downstream. The river is the main shipping route to ports along the U.S. Gulf Coast, where roughly 65 percent of corn, soybeans and wheat are exported.
Only one tow was waiting to pass the closed section of the Mississippi River at Sabula, Reid said.
The traditional start of the shipping season has been delayed by about two weeks on the upper Mississippi River. Ice on Lake Pepin, located just south of the river source at Minneapolis, was too thick for barge traffic and it could be a week or more before it is passable.
"No one is talking about making a run at Lake Pepin yet," said a barge trader in Minneapolis. (Reporting by Michael Hirtzer, editing by G Crosse)