Rust hole causes barge to sink in James River


The January sinking of a barge loaded with 1,200 tons of fertilizer in the James River near Hopewell, Va., was apparently caused by a rust hole in the bow, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The 198-foot barge SL 119 began taking on water Jan. 9. It listed at the stern after being loaded with ammonium sulfate at a Honeywell International Inc. pier about a mile southeast of the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers. It sank three days later.

“We found a (rust) rotted hole about an inch-and-a-quarter” in diameter on the port side, said Paul Ledoux, chief investigator for the Coast Guard sector at Hampton Roads, Va. “The investigation is continuing, but we believe the hole contributed” to the sinking.

Ledoux said the barge — built in 1984 — was in poor condition and in general need of maintenance. As a type of barge known as a “hopper,” it does not come under Coast Guard inspection, he said.

SL 119 is owned by the Sea-Land Transport Co., of Urbanna, Va. The barge was salvaged by Coastal Environmental Services of Virginia, a company headquartered in Suffolk. John T. Klinefelter, the company’s owner, said that before the barge could be brought up, it was necessary to “clam-shell” about 500 tons of the muddy fertilizer out of the submerged hopper.

Klinefelter confirmed the rust hole in the bow.

“About the size of a quarter,” he said. “Leaks from the exterior led water into other voids (sections) of the barge. It sank stern first because it was being loaded in the stern.”

SL 119 had been pushed to the Honeywell pier along with a second barge by the tug Jacqueline A, also owned by Sea-Land. Once raised, the barge was moved to Shirley Plantation in Charles City, Va., awaiting the results of various investigations.

“The (rust) hole was about 15 inches above the waterline on the port side and when the barge became heavier with cargo, the hole was pushed three feet below the waterline,” said Klinefelter. He said his firm found a similar rust problem — a hole a little bigger than a quarter when the “barnacle” was chipped away — on the starboard side. A decision on breaking up the barge for scrap had not been made at presstime. Klinefelter put the overall cost of raising the barge and possible scrapping at about $650,000.

Ammonium sulfate is an inorganic chemical compound most commonly used as a fertilizer. It is not listed as a hazardous material by the Environmental Protection Agency. The accidental dumping of a large quantity, as occurred in the Jan. 12 Sea-Land incident, may fall under Virginia’s State Water Control Law. In warmer weather, it might have resulted in an algae bloom, which would have sucked oxygen from the water resulting in damage to marine life.

Sea-Land Transport is owned by Alfred E. Ailsworth, Jr. A man reached at a home listing for Alfred E. Ailsworth, Jr., in Deltaville identified himself as Mr. Ailsworth, but claimed no knowledge about the barge sinking.

Ledoux said the Mr. Ailsworth, Jr., living at the same Deltaville address would be brought into Coast Guard offices for questioning in regard to the barge and its condition.

“We want to get exactly what actions he took to prevent the sinking both before and after” it began to take on water, Ledoux said. “We’re going to look at any maintenance that might have been done, such as scheduled dry docks, and also to see if there is a possibility of negligence on (Ailsworth’s) part.” As of early April, no charges had been filed in the incident.

By Professional Mariner Staff