US Army Corps of Engineers
Pittsburgh District

Locked Up! Army Corps Lock Operators Battle Bone-Chilling Temps to Quickly Re-open Ohio River Navigation

U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Pittsburgh District
Published Dec. 29, 2016
A workboat rests on the main chamber lock wall as repair crews above work to fix New Cumberland Locks and Dam's hydraulic system.

A workboat rests on the main chamber lock wall as repair crews above work to fix New Cumberland Locks and Dam's hydraulic system.

Lockmaster Willie Maynard at New Cumberland Locks and Dam walks along the middle wall toward the downstream end of the facility where crews are working to fix a hydraulic failure that closed the upper Ohio River to commercial traffic.

Lockmaster Willie Maynard at New Cumberland Locks and Dam walks along the middle wall toward the downstream end of the facility where crews are working to fix a hydraulic failure that closed the upper Ohio River to commercial traffic.

A welder emerges from a mechanical trench at New Cumberland Locks and Dam where he works to cap hydraulic lines that failed Dec. 12, closing the upper Ohio River to commercial vessels.

A welder emerges from a mechanical trench at New Cumberland Locks and Dam where he works to cap hydraulic lines that failed Dec. 12, closing the upper Ohio River to commercial vessels.

Bone-chilling winds cut through the crisp December air as operators and mechanics at a downed Ohio River lock scrambled on the early morning of Dec. 12 to isolate a hydraulic line break that shutdown navigation.

The lock crew stopped passing vessels through the lock after noticing a sheen on the water in the facility’s 110 feet by 1,200-feet primary chamber at New Cumberland Locks and Dam, eight miles south of Wellsville, Ohio. They immediately deployed spill containment booms to absorb and stop the spread of hydraulic fluid, which was mostly contained within the chamber.

The shutdown closed Ohio River navigation upstream and downstream of the lock. Tows pushing 15 jumbo barges of mostly coal, aggregates and petroleum started to stack up. Some returned to their terminals but most tied up to river mooring cells, waiting for the lock to open back up.  

The district dispatched civil and environmental experts to investigate the spill and reported the situation to the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center, navigation interests and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which monitors water quality on the Ohio River.

As the time passed, tows delivered supplies and new crews to waiting vessels to replace those who had been housed on their tows for days.

Meanwhile, lock mechanics and repair party welders worked in wind chills approaching 10 degrees below zero trying to cap and test several hydraulic lines that run under water and operate the chamber’s 170-ton miter gates and filling and emptying valves.

Five days later, the New Cumberland team had a temporary fix in place that allowed them to operate the upstream miter gates and some filling and emptying valves hydraulically; the work of opening and closing the downstream miter gates, where hydraulic power was still unavailable, fell to the facility’s 53-foot work boat and lock operators.

Due to safety and operational considerations, crews only worked during daylight hours from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. New Cumberland is usually open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Still, crews locked six vessels through when it re-opened on Dec. 17, significantly reducing the number of waiting vessels. The next day they passed another six tows.

The quick action to install a temporary repair allowed vital commodities such as steam and metallurgic coal to reach their destinations.

Rich Lockwood, chief of the district’s Operations and Regulatory Division, said that crews did exactly as they have been trained to do when something goes wrong – from noticing the sheen to deploying the containment booms to notifying industry.

“(Lockmaster) Willie Maynard and his team have done it all about as well as anyone could have hoped for,” said Lockwood. “What service we are providing is due to their service, skill and dedication.”

The district submitted a request to its headquarters for $3.8 million in emergency funds to put in place a more long-term solution, but that fix could be several months away.

“The men and women who work on the locks everyday are dedicated to the mission and take pride in ensuring the river remains open so that industry is able to deliver goods to keep the nation running,” said Col. John Lloyd, commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District.

New Cumberland Locks and Dam is comprised of two lock chambers, an auxiliary and a main chamber. The Corps placed the 110 feet by 600-feet auxiliary lock chamber out of service approximately two years ago due to structural issues that prevent its safe operation; however, the remaining primary lock is a vital part of the nation’s inland waterways system.

“Any closure like we saw at New Cumberland because of aging infrastructure is costly to us, industry, and many others who depend on the river system to be open to transport goods,” Lloyd said. “It always reminds me how we must take a hard look at our future strategy to deal with our infrastructure to reduce river closures that are costly at so many levels.”

At the time of this report, crews were looking for additional ways to increase operating hours at the lock using temporary measures until a long-term solution can be executed.

“I am incredibly proud of the work they do especially under adverse conditions.” Lloyd said.