27-barge pileup caused minimal damage to Emsworth Locks and Dams, officials say

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jan. 15–The Emsworth Locks and Dams appears to be structurally sound and have suffered minimal damage despite more than two dozen barges breaking loose along the Ohio River and causing a massive pileup near the structure, officials said Sunday.

Fifteen barges — mostly filled with coal or cement — remain stacked against the main channel following Saturday morning’s snowstorm , one against the back channel and more potentially beneath the water’s surface, Jeff Hawk, spokesman for the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the facility.

“Then some made it downstream and sunk, and some were recovered and moored on the shoreline,” Hawk said.

At least two barges that broke away at the same time as the others have to be found.

None contained hazardous materials, officials said.

The Army Corps and Coast Guard are working with industry leaders to get the barges removed as soon as river conditions improve enough for a salvage rig to do so safely.

“There’s been a unified command established so we all have one common understanding of the situation and how we’re going to resolve and remove these barges and get back to normal operations,” Hawk said.

A team of structural engineers visited the Emsworth site Saturday night and did not find any serious structural problems, Hawk said.

“Once they pull those barges off, we’ll get a little bit more information,” he said.

Officials had initially feared that the barge pileup could cause potential flooding upstream or drain the Pittsburgh navigation pool. They’re less concerned about such impacts now, though Hawk noted that some barges continued to roll and sink into Saturday evening and Sunday.

“Some of the barges are shifting and ice is building up behind them, and that’s what we are monitoring continuously,” Hawk said. “This is a dynamic situation.”

River Salvage Company estimated it could take two to three days to remove the barges once the process begins, but the Army Corps and Coast Guard have yet to determine a specific timeline.

“Obviously, we don’t want them (the salvage rig) working under dangerous conditions,” Hawk said.

Separately, officials dealt with more loose barges on the lower part of the Ohio River between the Pike Island and Hannibal locks and dams facilities, where some of the barges may have sunk in the navigation channel. Portions of the river remained closed to traffic while the Coast Guard determined possible risks.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.