High waters, more hazardous cargo in the Ohio watershed complicate the job of keeping the waterways safe
As the conditions on the Ohio — and its cargo — become more hazardous, key regulatory organizations struggle to keep up with the growing demands of this water highway.
Just before dawn in January 2018, 27 barges were floating like a net along the banks of the Ohio River, downstream of the city of Pittsburgh.
Map by Blue Raster
More serious marine accidents<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5Njg4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTIwNDg5N30.MP0votAGQvmiXvTTd8FaUJXLcrNL6DLbsTPfJ44puNI/img.jpg?width=980" id="37d7a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7bae359d22cd7a3e3ebc2687ca4cd452" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A towing vessel and barges moving through the area monitored by the Louisville Vessel Traffic Service on Dec. 22, 2017. (Credit: Alexandra Kanik/KyCIR)<p>Inland marine accidents don't attract as much publicity as accidents on the oceans. Generally, inland vessels are much smaller, and fewer deaths result from single incidents.</p><p>But navigating inland waterways can still be a treacherous endeavor, made more hazardous when the river is high. A <a href="https://www.lrh.usace.army.mil/Portals/38/docs/orba/USACE%20Ohio%20River%20Basin%20CC%20Report_MAY%202017.pdf" target="_blank">2017 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' report</a> estimates that up to 50 percent more water could be coursing through the Ohio River watershed within this century due to climate change.</p><p>The river's rise obscures river banks and changes river beds. It creates currents that can pull vessels off course, or throw debris into mariners' paths. </p><p>The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed <a href="https://cgmix.uscg.mil/IIR/IIRSearch.aspx" target="_blank">federal data</a> from 2010 to 2018 on serious marine accidents, which the U.S. Coast Guard defines as incidents involving death or serious injury, excessive property damage or a discharge of hazardous materials. </p><p>Nearly 3,400 marine incidents occurred in a nine-year period in the Ohio watershed. In 2010, about 8 percent were serious. By 2018, serious incidents accounted for 12 percent. </p><p>Incidents citing high waters as a contributing factor are on the rise, data show.</p>
The Ohio River, during high water level, upstream of downtown Louisville on Feb. 15, 2018. (Credit: Alexandra Kanik/KyCIR)<p>Coast Guard serious incident reports from 2010 to 2015 occasionally cited "high waters" or "fast-moving currents" as contributing factors to the accidents. But these terms began to show up more frequently in accident descriptions starting in 2016, data show.</p><p>In one 2018 incident near Louisville, barges loaded with crude oil condensate got stuck on the river bank. The pilot struggled to avoid being overtaken by strong currents.</p>
Barge arrangement at the fleeting area upstream from the Emsworth Locks and Dam prior to the Jan. 13, 2018 breakaway. (Illustration from NTSB accident report)<p>But inland accidents like the Emsworth barge breakaway outside of Pittsburgh make the list because of the costly property damage they leave in their wake.</p><p>And these accidents are not uncommon in the Ohio watershed, in part because the Ohio River is so difficult to navigate. </p><p>Louisville's section of the Ohio River is one of only 12 places in the country with a <a href="https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/?pageName=vtsMain" target="_blank">Vessel Traffic Service</a> — essentially an escort system to help vessels navigate dangerous or congested stretches of river. It is the only inland traffic service and the only one that operates solely during times of high water.</p><p>Louisville's service was established in 1973 after a series of accidents, such as the February 1972 incident when a barge carrying chlorine gas became lodged in the McAlpine dam, threatening lives and requiring the evacuation of the nearby Portland neighborhood.</p><p>Between 2012 and 2016, Louisville's traffic service was activated for an average of 59 days a year. In the last two years, it was active for 151 days and 130 days, respectively.</p>
More hazardous cargo<p>More than 180 million tons of cargo travel up and down the rivers of the Ohio watershed each year, according to a KyCIR analysis of <a href="https://usace.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16021coll2/search/searchterm/shipping/field/subjec/mode/exact/conn/and/order/title/ad/asc" target="_blank">commodities data</a> from the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The river carries shipments of food, alcohol, fuel, construction supplies and even rocket parts.</p><p>More and more, those cargo vessels are carrying non-solid fuels.</p>
What's being done?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5Njg5NS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjMwMTQ5MX0.ZLRuN7ulveMdk1_mqm5o4V5I6XP98YiXA9sfi4O6OWc/img.png?width=980" id="b6637" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="10db01a2f214319035a5155ef5485ff1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Aerial photo of barges against the Emsworth Locks and Dam after the breakaway on Jan. 13, 2018. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard)<p>Government agencies and regulatory bodies say they are working together to improve safety and mitigate harm after accidents occur. But change is slow to come.</p><p>For example, Congress passed legislation in 2004 that established mandatory inspections for towing vessels. But <a href="https://www.dco.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Prevention-Policy-CG-5P/Traveling-Inspector-Staff-CG-5P-TI/Towing-Vessel-National-Center-of-Expertise/SubIRegulations-Copy/" target="_blank">mandatory inspections didn't actually begin</a> until 2018, nearly 14 years later.</p><p>But as each year brings more volatile weather than the year before, the agencies say they're trying to be proactive, rather than reactive.</p><p>Only recently did the NTSB begin documenting its accident investigations with an internal database. LaRue said the effort will help provide a "better idea about trending and things like that, and hopefully spot safety issues."</p><p>Such a database, when implemented, could help NTSB create a recommendation report on how to avoid weather-related incidents in the future, but the NTSB still lacks enforcement power. Even if its investigators identify safety protocols that could help mariners deal with extreme weather, it would be up to the Coast Guard to implement them.</p><p>Currently, the Coast Guard maintains and operates regional plans that help mariners respond to hazards such as high water or inclement weather on specific stretches of river.</p><p>Powell said that during times of high water, the Coast Guard subsectors hold conference calls to discuss river levels, vessel restrictions and weather and river forecasts. </p><p>Those forecasts are available for mariners from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association [NOAA], which uses various data points about rainfall and terrain to predict how waterways will react to extreme weather up to 10 days ahead of time. </p><p>"That gives them the opportunity to make decisions that are going to help them navigate the rivers safely if the water is coming up quickly," said Trent Schade, hydrologist in charge of NOAA's <a href="https://www.weather.gov/ohrfc/" target="_blank">Ohio River Forecast Center</a>. "They have an opportunity to move their boat into a safe harbor."</p><p>But these forecasts give only a short lead on the future of the river. Both the Coast Guard and NOAA say they aren't focused right now on climate change's long-term impacts on river safety. When it comes to next year or the next 10 years, the state of the water is much murkier.</p>