Removal of stuck barges from McAlpine Dam expected to ‘take some time’

Two barges that broke loose from a vessel on Tuesday morning remain settled in the lower McAlpine Dam structure as of Wednesday afternoon.
Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 12:15 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 29, 2023 at 4:37 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Two barges that broke loose from a vessel on Tuesday morning remain settled in the lower McAlpine Dam structure as of Wednesday afternoon, officials confirm.

Crews with Louisville Emergency Management have been on site at McAlpine Locks and Dam to assess damage and assist with the removal of the loose barges.

In a media briefing on Wednesday afternoon, officials announced crews had removed one of the three barges that were stuck within the dam. Officials said one of the barges is submerged, while the other one has been damaged.

The barges broke loose from a vessel around 2 a.m. March 28 with several becoming stuck within the dam. The river reopened to commercial traffic around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday thanks to the use of local vessel traffic services.

Officials said the cargo carried within the barges includes corn and around 1,400 tons of methanol. While methanol evaporates when exposed to air and quickly dissolves in water, it can be harmful if ingested or inhaled in large quantities.

Photos taken Tuesday by the Kentucky Energy and Environmental Cabinet (EEC) show one barge clearly damaged, buckled up against the dam. Another shows one of the barges partially submerged.

“The methanol barge, we are unable to see any damage on the stern part of it,” said Kevin Teichman, CEO of T&T Salvage, the company that will handle salvaging the two remaining barges. “But we have seen some damage on the double bottoms on it as well.”

John Roberts, CEO with Ingram Barge Company, said salvage operations may take some time due to high river levels and the current in the Ohio River. Teichman said salvage operations could not begin until water levels on the Ohio drop.

“Right now, we’re still in the early stages of planning,” Teichman said. “The Number One priority is safety. We don’t want to hurt anybody, and we don’t want to make the situation worse than it already is.”

As river conditions allow, 2.8 million pounds of liquid methanol will have to be safely removed.

“I also wanted to highlight what can be the inherent dangers of salvage operations, especially in a dynamic river environment,” U.S. Coast Guard Captain Heather Mattern said. “So, this will take some time.”

EEC environmental scientist Rob Blair said a catastrophic release of the liquid methanol is not likely but would produce toxic levels of the chemical drifting miles downriver resulting in fish kills. State and local officials emphasized at a press conference Wednesday that no leaks had been detected.

“We are focused on safety,” Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg said. “And so, we are preparing for any possible result, we are focused on the safety of the public, the safety of the first responders.”

Louisville Metro EMS said more than 80 air quality samples have been taken so far with no evidence of any hazards that pose a health risk. Louisville Water also released a statement on Tuesday evening stating the incident did not have an impact on the city’s water intake or quality.

Teams will remain in place and continue testing until the situation is resolved.

Groups currently assisting with cleanup include the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville Metro Emergency Management Agency, Kentucky Emergency Management, Toxicology Consulting and Environmental Health and other salvage and recovery experts.