Short-Term Fix in Sight for New Cumberland

but aging locks, dams will 'fail sooner or later'

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
15 December 2016
By Tom Fontaine

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STRATTON, Ohio — As the lockmaster at Ohio's aging New Cumberland Locks and Dam, Willie Maynard is accustomed to dealing with problems.

About two years ago, Maynard shut down the facility's crumbling auxiliary lock because structural problems prevented crews from closing the lock's gates and filling the chamber with water.

At least twice since, Maynard said, he has had to place the remaining main lock out of service because of problems with the facility's hydraulic system, which is used to open and close hulking lock gates that weigh up to 330,000 pounds apiece. The latest closure began Monday.

Officials hope to reopen the lock on a limited basis Saturday morning. That doesn't brighten Maynard's spirits.

“Everything is going to fail sooner or later,” Maynard said grimly, estimating that 90 percent of the facility's machinery and equipment was built or installed when New Cumberland was constructed about 54 miles downstream of Pittsburgh between 1955 and 1961. Despite its advanced age (the facility was built to last 50 years), New Cumberland is modern compared to other Ohio River locks and dams that opened in the 1920s and '30s.

New Cumberland's latest closure has shut down commercial traffic on the Ohio River. On Thursday, eight boats sat on the river near the facility waiting for the main lock to reopen.

Their engines idled as they waited, burning fuel to stay in place and keep the heat running, but their crew members didn't idle.

“There are duties to attend to on the boat, so you try to keep busy as much as possible. We don't just sit around and play cards,” said Charles Stewart, 24, of New Orleans, a deckhand on Marathon Petroleum Co.'s “Canton” that has been sitting upstream of New Cumberland since Monday. Stewart's crew was relieved by another crew Thursday afternoon. After getting off the boat with two pieces of luggage, Stewart trudged through the snow to a van that would take him and his fellow crew members back to Kentucky, where their latest four-week tour of duty began.

As for the closed main lock, Maynard said, “It's like having a one-lane road. When you shut that lane down, you got no road.”

About 30 million tons of goods passed through New Cumberland last year, including 18 million tons of coal en route to coal-fired power plants that help provide electricity to homes and businesses across the region.

New Cumberland's neighbor, the W.H. Sammis Plant, is FirstEnergy's largest coal-fired power plant in Ohio. It uses about 18,000 tons of coal a day.

“The closure has impacted deliveries to the plant, but we keep several weeks of inventory on the property, so the closure hasn't impacted plant operations,” FirstEnergy spokeswoman Stephanie Walton said.

Barges through New Cumberland also carried 4.4 million tons of aggregates such as sand, gravel and stone that are commonly used in construction; 3 million tons of petroleum products; 1.9 million tons of so-called primary manufactured products including steel and iron; and 1 million tons of chemicals.

Debra Calhoun, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Waterways Council Inc., said the nation's inland waterways function as a critical “relief valve,” easing congestion on roads and often reducing costs for companies and, in turn, holding prices in check for consumers. She noted that a tow boat with 15 barges can haul as much as 870 semi-trucks.

Maynard and the Army Corps of Engineers has come up with what its believes will be a temporary fix to reopen the main lock Saturday morning.

Welders cut and capped faulty hydraulic lines that leaked 150 gallons of hydraulic fluid into the main chamber. To open and close gates at one of the locks, Maynard said, workers will use a 53-foot work boat to push and pull the gates, which stand about five stories tall.

Maynard said the complicated process figures to make it take at least twice as long for boats to get through the lock — from one hour, on average, to up to 2 1⁄2 hours. The lock, normally open around the clock, will be open only during daylight hours.

“We operate on the rivers 24/7, so when you reduce the lock's operations to daylight-only, that really impacts our business,” said Rich Kreider, vice president of logistics for Washington County-based towing company Campbell Transportation Co. Inc., which has two boats waiting in line to go through New Cumberland.

Maynard and the Army Corps are looking to replace New Cumberland's hydraulic system with four self-contained hydraulic units that would sit on top of walls at the facility. The current system includes underwater lines buried in the sand, making repairs more difficult and increasing the risk for environmental contamination. The new system would cost about $2 million.

Army Corps spokesman Jeff Hawk said officials plan to submit a request for emergency funding to cover the cost. Maynard said it could take six months to a year to secure the money.

“We can't manage the inland waterways system by emergency shutdowns,” Calhoun said, “and by trying to reprogram funds meant for something else to cover emergency repairs. ... We have to have enough maintenance and operations money to handle catastrophic issues as they arise.”

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or