2011-11-03 / Front Page

Barge under Newport Bridge sinks during nor’easter

BY MARGO SULLIVAN


One of two work barges at the Newport Pell Bridge sank over the weekend during the storm. Efforts are underway to refloat the barge. 
PHOTO BY JEFF MCDONOUGH One of two work barges at the Newport Pell Bridge sank over the weekend during the storm. Efforts are underway to refloat the barge. PHOTO BY JEFF MCDONOUGH A barge mounted with heavy equipment is en route from New York City to raise the vessel that sank under the Newport Pell Bridge during last weekend’s nor’easter, according to Beth Bailey of RDW Group in Providence. RDW handles publicity for the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority.

Bailey said the sunken barge – with a generator, compressors and three double-walled tanks of diesel fuel lashed on deck – went down sometime between Saturday night and noon on Sunday.

Bill Munger of Conanicut Marina provided booms to trap the fuel escaping from the sunken barge and said so far, only a small amount has spilled into Narragansett Bay.

Bailey described the oil as a “minor sheen” in the area around the sunken barge.

Munger said the barge was sitting upside down in 80 feet of water based on underwater video taken by a dive team.

Between 2,200 and 2,400 gallons of diesel fuel went down with the barge, according to Gail Svoboda, president of Abhe & Svoboda, the company that won the contract to repair and repaint the Newport Bridge. The company leased the barge to store equipment.

He estimated “a gallon or two” had leaked out into Narragansett Bay but had since been “vacuumed up.”

The oil was stored “within three double-walled tanks,” Svoboda said. “We had three diesel fuel tanks with 1,000 gallons each.” He added that when the barge sank, the tanks and equipment tipped upside down, and some diesel spilled into the bay.

The Coast Guard said Tuesday that divers had plugged leaks due to the equipment and the tanks sitting upside down.

The U.S. Coast Guard (New Bedford Station) and the state Department of Environmental Management have been on the scene, according to Gail Mastrati, DEM spokeswoman. The Coast Guard is in charge of the government supervision, she said. Clean Harbors, the Newport harbormaster, the Newport Navy Base and the state Department of Transportation also had been notified, Bailey said.

Jamestown’s harbormaster is a seasonal position, and the last day on the job for Sam Paterson was Oct. 31, according to Kim Devlin of the harbor office.

Jamestown Chief of Police Edward Mello said RITBA notified his office about the situation, but local police and the town Harbor Commission were not involved.

No one can say yet why the barge sank, but there is speculation a hatch may have been left open or part of the deck had rusted out and become “porous,” Munger said, so when a big wave washed over the deck, the barge took on water.

It sank despite precautions taken by Abhe & Svoboda of Prior Lake, Minn., Bailey said. Before the storm hit, the contractor unloaded hazardous materials and paint and tied the barge down with four anchors, she said.

But the anchors may ultimately have contributed to its sinking, Svoboda speculated.

“We were leasing the barge,” he said. “We had a bunch of equipment mounted on it to abrasive blast clean and paint the bridge.” Svoboda confi rmed the barge was anchored at all four corners to secure it, but said the force of the nor’easter wind had not been anticipated.

“Nobody was predicting the kind of winds you got,” he said. “When a barge is stabilized at all four corners and a large wave hits, it starts rocking.” The barge likely started rocking and then flipped over.

Svoboda said the company had not tried to lift the sunken barge, despite reports of a failed attempt Monday.

“We actually didn’t try to raise the barge,” he said. Instead, a dive team went down to videotape the sunken barge, so a decision could be made about the type of equipment needed for the job.

Svoboda said the company wanted to hire a local operator to salvage the 120-by-30-foot barge because hiring the New York outfit would mean a 30-hour delay while the barge was in transit. But they could not find anyone local who could handle the operation.

He described the New York City barge as a “large A-Frame.”

Once the barge arrives, Svoboda said, the first step would be to right the barge. Then, the crew will bring up the equipment and three tanks of diesel fuel.

“Then the barge is no big deal,” he said, meaning it would not be too diffi cult to bring it up. He does hope to salvage it, he said.

According to Bailey, the repairs and repainting work on the bridge started in September 2010.

The Newport Pell Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the state.

“The current phase of work is expected to conclude for the season at the end of December,” she said. “During this first phase of the four-year project, one million square feet of structural steel surfaces on the 11,248-foot long bridge are to be blast cleaned and recoated. Only the suspended spans of the bridge are worked on during this phase and the protective coating is not lead-based.”

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