Illinois River navigation halted after loose barges damage dam


Seven runaway barges struck a dam on the Illinois River, causing extensive damage to the gate system and disrupting navigation for almost a month.

The accident at the Marseilles Dam happened April 18 during a heavy rain when the river swelled to record levels. Dale A. Heller was downbound on the Illinois River when it lost control of its tow approaching the entrance to the Marseilles Lock canal. Seven of the 14 barges broke away and came to rest against the dam southwest of Chicago, 245 river miles above the confluence with the Mississippi River.

The dam was not breached, but five of the eight gates were affected. Three of those gates were temporarily repaired and returned to service after the barges resting against them were removed. Two gates received significant damage, but final inspections will have to wait until all the barges are removed, said Andrew Barnes, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District.

“On the two gates that were hit and rendered inoperable, we don’t know if we’re looking at repair or replacement of those gates,” Barnes said.

Salvage operations began quickly as the Army Corps of Engineers and Ingram Barge Co., operator of Dale A. Heller, brought in cranes and receiving barges to lighter cargo and refloat four submerged barges. A Unified Command consisting of the Army Corps, the Coast Guard and Ingram Barge was formed to manage the incident.

The seven runaway barges were loaded with a variety of cargoes that presented unique challenges, such as iron ore, coiled steel, steel plate and cement. Barnes said some of the cement in a barge had set up and had to be removed with jackhammers before the barge could be refloated.

The Corps planned on having the remaining two barges removed by June.

About 100 tows were affected during navigation restrictions that were in effect until May 17, according to Cmdr. Jason Neubauer, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago.

Two of the gates suffered damage to the trunnion anchorage, part of the hinge mechanism that allows the gate to raise or lower. The gates are stuck in the raised position and will require extensive repair before returning to service.

The Army Corps built a 300-foot-long rock dike to make salvage and repair operations easier in the path of the water flow through the damaged gates. The navigation pool was lowered four feet for seven days to facilitate construction of the dike.

“Instead of water rushing through those gate bays in an uncontrolled manner, there’s calm water now which will facilitate the removal of the remaining barges,” Barnes said.

Barnes expected the rock dike to be removed by early July. Temporary repairs have cost about $10 million so far, but the full damage to the dam is unknown at this point. Based on current assessments, permanent concrete and steel repairs to the dam could run as high as $50 million.

The investigation into a cause is ongoing. The Coast Guard is the lead investigative agency in conjunction with the National Transportation Safety Board. Due to pending litigation, Ingram Barge officials would not comment on the incident.

By Professional Mariner Staff