Gasoline barge runs aground on undetected shoal in Columbia River

Undetected shoaling was a factor when a barge carrying 1 million gallons of gasoline ran aground in the Columbia River, federal officials said.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the inbound towing vessel The Chief was pushing four barges near the mouth of Oregon’s Hood River when the starboard aft barge New Dawn grounded at 0315 on July 9. About 500,000 gallons of cargo had to be lightered before the barge was dislodged from the mud two days later.

The grounding happened behind Bonneville Lock and Dam, which creates a reservoir offering navigable waters that are 40 to 50 feet deep and 300 feet wide, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Instead of staying in the center, The Chief operated within a wider range of Coast Guard buoys indicating 30-foot-deep water, according to the operator of the vessels, Tidewater Barge Lines of Vancouver, Wash.

“It appears that the company was using the Coast Guard’s 30-foot contour,” Army Corps spokesman Matt Rabe said. “The Corps of Engineers only recognizes the federally authorized navigation channel. The navigation channel itself is adequately deep enough.”

When laden, New Dawn draws 12 feet 2 inches, said John Pigott, Tidewater’s manager of government and industry affairs. Mariners suspect that the sediment problem originated when the Hood River flooded in 2007, depositing acres of silt and rock beyond its mouth.

“There was definitely shoaling extending off the mouth of the Hood River that has sort of incrementally moved out into the Columbia River. The extent out into the river is what wasn’t known until just recently,” Pigott said. “When the barge came to a halt, there was only about 5 feet of water midships on that barge.”

Lt. Michael St. Louis, chief of the Coast Guard’s investigation division for Sector Portland, Ore., said the 282-foot New Dawn grounded toward the Oregon riverbank. The double-hulled barge routinely operates between Portland and Pasco, Wash., where it offloads its gasoline.

“It was designed as the maximum size that can run in the river,” St. Louis said of the barge. The Chief, at 4,300 hp, is 115 feet long.

The grounding happened in the vicinity of buoy No. 36. For inbound vessels, the river bends to starboard at that spot. Pigott said towboat pilots rely on the 30-foot contour to help them determine the most efficient arc.

“You try to take the shortest course,” Pigott said.

Pigott said the river’s centerline is not specifically marked in that part of the upper Columbia River or the Snake River upstream. The Hood River’s mouth is about 20 miles downriver from The Dalles Dam.

“There is a published channel on the charts up to Bonneville Dam,” he said. “Once you get above Bonneville Dam, there are series of navigation aids and range markers that describe the navigable water to Lewiston, Idaho. There isn’t really a published channel on the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) charts above Bonneville … but the Corps of Engineers survey chart has it. We’re working with the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard to make sure that survey data is able to flow effectively from agency to agency and to stakeholders.”

The lightered cargo was transferred to the Tidewater barge New Vision. New Dawn was not damaged. After the grounding, the Coast Guard placed a temporary buoy in the area to mark the shoal, St. Louis said. He said the actual depth was found to be seven to eight feet.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff