15 coal barges break from Monongahela fleeting area, two sink


Fifteen loaded coal barges broke free from a fleeting area on the Monongahela River east of Pittsburgh, Pa., and two later sank. At least three other barges hit downriver bridges spanning the waterway.

Gulf Materials of Braddock, Pa., owned the barges, which were moored at mile marker 10.3 in Rankin Borough when they broke free at about 1600 on May 24. The cause of the breakaway is still under investigation, according to U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Shawn Simeral.

The incident occurred during a period of relatively high water on the Monongahela, which meets the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River.

“It was up for sure, but it wasn’t at any kind of watch phase for us,” Simeral said of the Monongahela.

The two barges sank at mile marker 8.7, slowly spilling their loads into the river. Local news footage showed a black trail of coal billowing into the muddy waters. A third barge tethered to the sunken barges and remained afloat almost directly above them.

Three additional barges became pinned against a CSX railroad bridge. One or more barges also hit the Rankin Bridge in Rankin Borough. The barges pinned against the railroad bridge did not spill substantial amounts of coal into the river, Simeral said.

The bridges did not sustain serious damage and reopened the day of the incident.

Tugboats from nearby companies, including River Salvage, helped corral the drifting barges. They were under control before they reached the Homestead Grays Bridge in Pittsburgh, according to Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs.

All 15 barges were accounted for within a day of the incident, Simeral said. The two sunken vessels, found using side-scan sonar, were salvaged on May 29.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said coal does not pose an imminent hazard to the waterway or wildlife living around it. “DEP will assess the situation once a cleanup contractor has removed as much coal as possible, but there are not thought to be any long-term concerns for water quality as a result of this spill,” spokesman Neil Shader said.

The Coast Guard established a safety zone around the sunken barges that effectively closed the Monongahela River for five days.

The breakaway occurred about 15 miles upriver from an Ohio River fleeting area where 27 barges broke free in January. More than a dozen of those barges became pinned against Emsworth Lock and Dam, and at least seven barges went over the structure.

Jeff Hawk, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said three or four barges were still pinned against the dam in early June.

“Industry has raised some, but elevated river levels through the winter and spring have hampered operations,” he said in an email.

Army Corps personnel monitored the recent coal barge breakaway, Hawk said, but none of its facilities were affected. Gulf Materials, owner of the breakaway barges, could not be reached for comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff