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Salvage efforts to retrieve sunken barges continue at McAlpine Dam

Published Feb. 13, 2019

Salvage operations to retrieve three remaining barges are ongoing at the McAlpine Dam on the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky, following a navigation incident on Christmas Day, which left nine barges pinned against the dam.

The Motor Vessel Debbie Graham, a towboat owned by Tennessee Valley Towing, was pushing 15 barges of coal on Dec. 25, 2018, when it struck the Clark Memorial Bridge piers causing the barges to break apart. Nine of those barges moved downstream to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District’s McAlpine Dam requiring an extensive recovery operation.

The Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, marine surveyors and Tennessee Valley Towing coordinated closely in the immediate response effort and in developing a salvage plan for the rogue barges.

“Close coordination with all parties was essential,” said Shawn Kenney, USACE Louisville District assistant operations manager for locks and dams. “We worked closely to ensure that river navigation could resume quickly and that salvage operations would be conducted as safely and efficiently as possible.” 

Two salvage fleets, McKinney Salvage and Heavy Lift, Inc., out of Baton Rouge, La., and Big River Salvage, out of Vicksburg, Miss., stationed at the Port of Paducah were quickly en route to Louisville bringing a flat barge, two heavy-lift cranes and a dedicated crew of 10 to conduct the operations.

Before work could begin, the salvage plan had to be accepted by the Corps and the Coast Guard. 

Many factors are taken into consideration when accepting a salvage plan such as this, Kenney said.  

“Our main priority is always the life safety of the crew,” said Kenney. “Beyond that we look for impacts to our infrastructure or operations.”

Using a two-phased approach, the salvage crew first focused on three barges on the fixed weir portion of the dam, closest to the Indiana shoreline. The secondary plan of action is focused on salvaging the sunken barges at the gated portion of the dam—including one in the bay of tainter gate five.  

When work began Jan. 8 there were seven barges fully or partially submerged and only two still afloat. The fleet attached to a mooring cell anchor point upstream and lowered down to the dam to begin retrieving cargo from the first few barges.

The fleet began by transloading, or lightering, the coal with a clam shell from the barges into empty hopper barges which were brought onsite.

This allowed them to successfully remove the three barges by the Indiana bank. The one furthest upriver had partially sunk and had to be raised with the crane. The two closest to the fixed weir were grounded as the river level fell, but after the weight of the coal was removed they were pulled out without crane support.  A fourth barge, in front of the dam gates, was pinned by another sunken barge and salvage crews cut the end of it off before lifting it clear of the dam with two cranes.

Crews removed a total of five barges by Jan. 22, when work was temporarily suspended due to high river levels. 

“River and weather conditions have to be assessed day-by-day to determine whether salvage operations can continue,” said Kenney. “It is a dynamic environment and adjustments have to be made along the way. We recognize that no two salvage operations are ever going to be the same, so adaptability is key.”

Work resumed briefly in early February and the sixth barge was removed from the gated portion of the dam before the Ohio River’s water level rose quickly, suspending operations once again. 

“River stages are forecasted to remain high for the next couple weeks and we are entering the spring season when river stages are typically high, so it is uncertain when they will be able to wrap up this entire process,” said Kenney.

“The salvage crew has made great strides and the incredible staff at McAlpine have provided tremendous support. We will continue to work closely with them to ensure the remaining salvage operations are conducted as safely and efficiently as possible,” said Kenney.