When 17 barges broke free of their moorings on the raging, ice-filled Monongahela River, March 4, and lodged against a railroad bridge upstream of Locks and Dam 2 at Braddock, Corps navigation experts began to prepare for the worst. Previous breakaways incidents on the river had led to a loss of pool and severe, debilitating damage to navigation facilities when errant barges struck dams, rendering them partially inoperable.
The U.S. Coast Guard led the barge recovery effort and worked with the Corps, the National Weather Service, railroad officials and the navigation industry to monitor the situation and devise a plan. All were concerned that the barges would break loose of the railroad bridge and speed toward the four-gated Braddock Dam, less than a mile downstream.
“The best case is that the barges will come in straight on and pass through the open gates,” said Rich Lockwood, Pittsburgh’s operations chief. The worst case breakaway scenario is for the barges to collide sideways with the dam piers, he said.
In that instance, even 325-ton barges are no match for a raging river, which can potentially curl the empty barges around the pier, preventing the operation of two adjacent gates. Or the barges could collide sideways with the dam’s lift gate bays and become wedged there, also limiting the Corps’ ability to “influence the river,” said Lockwood.
But the Corps has standard procedures to minimize the risk of such scenarios, said the district’s navigation chief, John Dilla. “In general, we posture the gates in a way that funnels the barges to the center of the dam to try to direct them through the dam,” said Dilla. “This involves shutting down the outer most gates and keeping the center gates wide open to create the funnel.” At Braddock, the gates are 110 feet wide, so there is room for them to pass through without touching the dam, Lockwood added.
The Corps continued to monitor the situation as a river salvage company waited for improved river conditions to execute the barge recovery plan. On March 7, as the sun shone on a much calmer river and under the watchful eye of the U.S. Coast Guard, operations began to recover the barges and remove the risk they posed. Later that day, 16 of the 17 barges were returned to their fleeting facilities without incident.
“On scene responders have successfully removed all 16 of the floating barges lodged against the Norfolk Southern Railroad Bridge on the Monongahela River,” reported Coast Guard Lt. jg. Devin Adams. “One barge remains submerged and is securely lodged against a bridge pier head and is not in the vicinity of the navigable channel, posing no threat to commercial traffic.”
At the time of publication, salvage crews were waiting for lower river levels to recover the remaining submerged barge. In a statement to media, Adams expressed appreciation for the successful, coordinated, multi-agency effort. “While incidents will sometimes occur on the waterways, the solid response this week is a testament to the strong working relationship between all parties involved in the Port of Pittsburgh region,” said Adams.