March is an unlucky month for the McAlpine Locks and Dam

One of the barges flushed through the Dam’s gateway.
One of the barges flushed through the Dam’s gateway.
One of the barges flushed through the Dam’s gateway.

In the late afternoon of March 8, 2024, ten of the 15 coal-laden barges being pushed upriver broke away from M/V Amber Brittany near the McAlpine Locks and Dam on the Ohio River, near Louisville, Ky.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, “after exiting the McAlpine locks and passing alongside the vane dike at Mile 604, the head of the tow was caught by the current and pushed broadside back down river where it struck the Coast Guard Lifesaver Memorial Light. The contact broke apart the tow, setting the ten barges adrift. 

Eight of the barges drifted and subsequently struck the Fourteenth Street Bridge. “Of those eight barges, five barges were undamaged, one was repaired and refloated, one partially sank, and one completely sank,” the agency said. 

The other two adrift barges struck the McAlpine Lower Dam gates; one barge partially sank and the other completely sank after being flushed through the Dam. No pollution or injuries were reported with initial damage assessments exceeding $500,000.

According to statement from the Coast Guard’s Ohio Sector Public Affairs Office, a Special Marine Information Broadcast was issued for the area, “but no official shutdown of water traffic occurred and no one was injured in the incident.” 

The lock chambers at McAlpine Lock and Dam were reportedly closed to traffic and remained temporarily closed until the dam structure was inspected by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the barges were secured and removed.  

The Coast Guard is leading the investigation, and the NTSB will investigate and determine the probable cause.

The twin-screw Amber Brittany was built as Paul H. Lambert in 1982 by the Superior Boat Works yard in Greenville, La., the boat was originally owned by Houston-based Coastal Towing and went through several name changes before being acquired in 2002 by Imperial River Transport of Dunlevy, Pa., and given its current name. 

The incident is the third such March barge breakaway at the McAlpine Locks and Dam complex. 

In March 2023, eleven barges loaded with soy, corn and 1,400 tons of methanol broke their tow, with three striking the Dam at entrance to the Portland Canal near the entrance to the Locks. 

And high water on the Ohio River was cited as the cause of a March 1972 barge incident in which three barges carrying 640 tons of chlorine slammed into the Dam after breaking their tow.