LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Rough river conditions are making it hard for the U.S. Coast Guard to clean up a mess of barges that broke loose after hitting the Second Street Bridge on Christmas.
Nine barges are still in the water, stuck on a dam near the Falls of the Ohio.
"Time is of the essence," Lt. Cmdr. Michael Metz, a member of the Coast Guard, said.
The Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers were assessing damage today, but faced rough water conditions.
Four of those have sunk spilling tons of coal into the water.
"Just within an hour and a half, a fourth one has sunk," Shawn Kenney, the Assistant Operation Manager of the McAlpine Lock and Dam for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said.
An additional barge capsized Friday, spilling up to 1800 tons of coal into the river.
"Raw coal going into the river is primarily going to disrupt habitat on the bottom of the river," Jason Flickner, Executive Director of the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper, said.
Flickner said he's concerned about impacts to the Falls of the Ohio state park—but said this is just part of the rivers pollution problem, citing his opposition to the proposed weakening of the Ohio River Valley Water and Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) pollution control standards.
The coal, though, may not be the biggest issue lurking underwater.
"The pool could draw down if we get low enough water conditions," Kenney said.
Officials said a sunken barge is trapped inside the dam’s gate, making it so the Army Corp of Engineers doesn’t have complete control of water levels.
"A variety of detrimental things that happen if this pool goes dry," Kenney said.
Kenney said that power plants rely on the river as a coolant, and commerce moving through the busy port could be severely impacted.
So, the Coast Guard said its working quickly, but safely on the treacherous waters.
"There's always a danger involved with this," Metz said.
Among those facing that is Sarah Schneider's husband, whose in the coast guard.
"This is the best way for us to come see him right now is to come out and wave to him," Schneider said.
She said he had planned to spend the week off with the family, but he was called to serve, and with a federal government shutdown, he isn't even getting paid.
"They are the only military branch affected by everything going on with the government," Schneider said. "So, this is kind of ironic because they're working their tail off."
As of Friday, officials were still reluctant to say just how long this may take to clean up. The Army Corps of Engineers said they plan to begin towing still floating barges away from the dam Saturday, but retrieving sunken vessels will be more difficult and time consuming.
The Tennessee Valley Towing Company is who the Coast Guard said is responsible for the barges. WAVE 3 News reached out to the company for comment Friday, but has to receive a response.
River traffic is open during the day, but only with an escort.