Loose Barges on Monongahela River Highlight Woes of Winter's End

Pittsburgh Tribune Review
5 March 2015

A late-winter storm dumped up to 11 inches of soggy snow on Western Pennsylvania, and flooding halted traffic on the swollen Monongahela River, where officials puzzled over how to free 17 renegade barges lodged against a train bridge in Duquesne.

“The Mon is pretty much shut down,” said Jeff Hawk, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman.

The barges remained lodged against the Norfolk and Southern Railroad bridge — about 11 miles from downtown Pittsburgh — after breaking free Wednesday and surging down the swollen river. Two towing vessels that were called to remove the barges couldn't do so because of dangerous river conditions, Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Devin Adams said. It's unclear when the barges will be removed. He would not speculate about what might happen if they broke loose and headed toward the nearby Braddock Locks & Dam and the Rankin Bridge.

The Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Waterways Association of Pittsburgh and the National Weather Service are assessing the situation. The bridge was open to rail traffic, Adams said.

High water from weather-related flooding is “preventing our ability to carry out the salvage operation,” Adams said.

In all, 18 barges floated free Wednesday. One was stopped at a nearby facility, Adams said.

The barges are empty and are tied together with cable. The Coast Guard declined to say which companies own the barges.

But Adams said the facility where they had been moored ultimately would be responsible for the barges.

The nearby Braddock Locks & Dam was unaffected by the barge cluster and is closed because of high water, said Kerry Skelley, the facility's assistant lock master.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed other locks and dams Thursday along the Monongahela. At certain points, the river crested at 2 to 4 feet over flood stage, according to the National Weather Service.

The closures halted river traffic, forcing barge companies to stand down until the water recedes.

“The operating conditions on the river have been a challenge,” said Mike Monahan, president of Campbell Transportation Co., which ships coal, grain and other commodities on barges and tow boats.

Monahan confirmed one barge belonged to his company.

He said he is monitoring the river closely and hopes his company will resume operations Friday or Saturday.

The Ohio River in Pittsburgh was at 21.7 feet Thursday morning and crested at 23 feet by early afternoon, Hawk said. Flood stage is 25 feet.

The Public Parking Authority of Pittsburgh notified parking customers that the Mon Wharf will remain closed until further notice because of the continued flooding. Flooding closed the North Shore Riverwalk, a South Side riverfront trail and inundated parts of Point State Park.

The heavy snowfall snarled the morning commute Thursday, with city buses unable to navigate secondary roads and major arteries into the city at a crawl for miles. Snowfall ranged from 1.8 to 11 inches across Western Pennsylvania, with the heaviest amounts reported in Westmoreland, Greene and Fayette counties, according to the National Weather Service.

Snow delayed a 500-ton shipment of salt to Pittsburgh, because the supplier couldn't get independent truck drivers to deliver it, according to city operations Chief Guy Costa. Costa said the city has 4,000 tons in reserve, enough to last several days, and New York-based American Rock Salt has promised the shipment from its Belle Vernon depot Friday.

The city suspended garbage collection Thursday because roads were not cleared in time for refuse employees to start their routes at 6 a.m. Collection will resume Friday and continue into Saturday if necessary.

Tony Raap is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7827 or traap@tribweb.com.