Breakaway on icy Ohio River leads to new safety recommendations


Twenty-seven barges broke free from a fleeting area near Pittsburgh, Pa., before dawn on Jan. 13, 2018, after a period of heavy rain unleashed a torrent of water and ice down the Ohio River.

How the breakaway happened is no mystery: Mooring wires and mooring cells couldn’t handle the strain from ice built up against the barge flotilla combined with the force of the fast current. More than a dozen barges piled up at the Emsworth Locks and Dam two miles downriver, and two barges sank. Others floated through the dam’s gates.

During the course of the investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) identified regulatory gaps that allow fleeting areas like this one to escape thorough inspection and federal oversight. Investigators said in many cases, the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers have limited authority or no authority over the conditions at the fleeting areas.

Additionally, both the Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers acknowledged they lack the resources and often the training needed to ensure fleeting areas throughout much of the inland waterways system are properly maintained and hardened against ice, high water and other hazardous conditions.

The NTSB issued recommendations to both entities to establish new policies and procedures requiring operators to develop facility guides for safely operating fleeting areas — and making sure the rules are followed.

“Developing a regulation that provides the Corps of Engineers or the Coast Guard with the authority to review, provide feedback on, and enforce compliance with waterfront facility operations guides would ensure that companies are putting sound procedures in place and that their operators are complying with the procedures,” the NTSB said in its investigation report.

The Jacks Run fleeting area where the breakaway occurred is located at mile marker 4 on the right descending bank alongside the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority plant. The site has heavy-duty mooring cells used to secure barges, although two were no longer in use due to their poor condition. Shoaling along the bank also limited where barges could be positioned.

The 27 barges moored at Jacks Run consisted of two rows of eight barges followed by a row of seven with a gap, or “duck pond,” in the middle. The last two rows, positioned closest to the channel due to shoaling, consisted of two barges apiece. The towboats James Garrett and Cori Weiland remained in position against the two barges farthest downriver to hold the fleet in place.

Cori Weiland’s captain noticed sparks at about 0615 on Jan. 13 as the forward mooring cell gave way, the report said. Moments later, the captain noticed the entire fleet was moving downriver with the current, quickly reaching 5 knots. The towboats attempted to push the barges back toward the fleeting area but were no match for the current.

The 1,800-hp Cori Weiland and 1,050-hp James Garrett each corralled a single barge, leaving 25 floating free. The locks and dam escaped unscathed, but damage to the barges and the value of the lost cargo totaled $7.1 million. Salvage costs reached $4 million. Two Corps of Engineers workboats moored near the dam, Emsworth and Dashields, were declared total losses.

An illustration from the NTSB report depicts the barge mooring arrangement at the Jacks Run fleeting area before the breakaway.

NTSB/Pat Rossi illustration

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority owns the fleeting area and had leased it to Industry Terminal & Salvage Co. (ITS), which in turn hired other firms to manage and operate the site despite contract terms forbidding subletting. The layered arrangement created uncertainty about which firm was required to maintain the fleeting area and even how to request repairs, the NTSB said.

“According to interviews … the mooring piles at the Jacks Run fleeting area were not being maintained by any of the parties using the fleeting area,” the report said, adding that a senior ITS official said the company had “no operational role” at the site and had not visited it in months.

The sanitary authority, meanwhile, argued that ITS had full responsibility to maintain the site. In a prepared statement, a spokesman for the county agency said its no-fee lease with ITS required the company to “maintain the highest standard of care in the industry in regard to its use and operation of the mooring area.”

Ultimately, the NTSB found both entities shared responsibility for the site. Their joint failure to maintain equipment and prevent shoaling allowed for “inadequate mooring arrangements during high water and ice” that were considered a leading factor in the breakaway.

“Contributing to the accident was the Army Corps of Engineers’ and Coast Guard’s lack of resources and authority to effectively inspect fleeting areas and ensure they are maintained,” the report continued.

Fleeting areas like Jacks Run operate in something of a regulatory no man’s land. Under existing rules, fleet operators are not required to demonstrate the structural integrity of mooring equipment, or respond to shoaling affecting the fleet. The Corps of Engineers also told the NTSB it has “no regulatory authority to mandate operational controls over a vessel in a … permitted fleeting area.”

The Coast Guard has similar regulatory limits related to barge fleets. One exception is for fleets located within so-called regulated navigational areas (RNAs). In these areas, the Coast Guard has wide latitude to mandate minimum mooring standards during high water and other hazardous conditions. Jacks Run is not located within an RNA, so no such rules were in place.

However, from 1996 until the time of the breakaway, the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh operated the Fleet Sweep Program to monitor and inspect fleets within the sector. The inspections covered the fleets’ compliance with operating permits, as well as the condition of mooring equipment. Inspectors also checked any barges on site to ensure they were tied up securely.

The Jacks Run incident raised questions about the effectiveness of the program, which was discontinued soon afterward. For instance, a Fleet Sweep inspection conducted nine months before the breakaway suggested mooring equipment at the site was in good condition. Other key sections of the report were left blank.

The stern of breakaway barge C508, left, struck a pair of Army Corps of Engineers workboats, Emsworth and Dashields, right, at the Emsworth Locks and Dam. Both Corps vessels were declared total losses.

U.S. Coast Guard photo

In their defense, Coast Guard inspectors told the NTSB they lacked the training to make proper judgments about the structural integrity of a given fleeting area. They also lacked a copy of many fleeting area permits, hindering their ability to evaluate whether requirements were being met.

“Coast Guard representatives stated that they had no training, regulations, or standards to attest to the structural integrity of the fleeting area,” the NTSB report said. “Thus, any recommendations coming from fleeting area examinations were based on the inspector’s experience and known industry best practices.”

Documents known as waterfront facility operations guides are a voluntary method used by companies in the Pittsburgh area to manage fleeting areas. They set forth clear procedures for operating fleets during varying conditions, including high water. ITS produced a fleeting procedures guide, but the NTSB said maintenance issues at the Jacks Run site prevented crews from following the policies.

Waterfront facility operations guides also have limits. These documents are not required for all fleeting areas, and the provisions are not reviewed by the Corps of Engineers or the Coast Guard. Likewise, the provisions are not enforceable by either entity in many cases.

There are no simple fixes for the regulatory gaps exposed during this investigation. However, the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard establish an RNA for the Pittsburgh region to provide another level of oversight, and specific mooring requirements, during high water or ice conditions.

The NTSB also recommended that the Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers develop policies to ensure fleet operators abide by terms of their permits. The agency suggested the Corps require waterfront facility operations guides when companies apply for permits, and that these guides be vetted to ensure they provide effective procedures — particularly during hazardous river conditions.

The Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers did not respond to requests for comment on the NTSB recommendations. ITS, which leases the Jacks Run fleeting area, also did not respond to an inquiry.

By Professional Mariner Staff