2011-11-10 / News

Raising barge more difficult than expected

BY TIM RIEL

The construction barge that sank under the Newport Pell Bridge following the Oct. 29 storm is still on the bottom of Narragansett Bay after divers said that raising the barge will be more difficult than first expected.

“When divers confirmed the position of the barge this week we realized this was going to be a complex salvage operation,” said Verne B. Gifford Jr., the Coast Guard captain of the port for southeastern New England.

The state Department of Environmental Management, Save the Bay, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, and Abhe & Svoboda – the RITBA contractor who leased the barge to store equipment – have joined the U.S. Coast Guard to form a unified command to determine how to salvage the barge.

“While it will take a little longer, the unified command agreed that it was important to bring the right resources to conduct the operation in a safe and efficient manner,” said Gifford.

According to the Coast Guard, divers earlier this week learned that the 120-foot barge was lying upside down on the bottom of the bay, partially submerged in mud. The equipment on the barge is reportedly wedged between the bottom of the bay and the barge. The Coast Guard added that the barge is inclined about 45 degrees relative to the bottom of the bay.

According to Gail Svoboda, president of Abhe & Svoboda, the lower side of the barge is submerged in 108 feet of water at its deepest. Svoboda said another vessel with a crane attached is on its way from either New Jersey or New York, and is expected to arrive Thursday, Nov. 10.

Svoboda said that the raising of the barge is expected to be a multifaceted rescue. The salvage contractor he hired to raise the barge – Donjon Marine, whose headquarters is in New Jersey – will most likely “cradle the barge in four locations using large slings.” After that, he said, the crane will move the sunken barge to shallower water. Svoboda said that divers are more effective in water that isn’t as deep and can work under the surface longer.

Svoboda added that the project could last 10 to 12 days. He said that it could take “around a week” to get the barge strapped and moved to shallower waters. From there, divers would have to unstrap the equipment, which is securely chained to the barge so that rough waves aren’t able to knock the equipment off into the bay. The equipment includes air compressors, vacuums, a grit reclaimer, and three 1,000-gallon double-walled tanks of diesel fuel. Only one piece of equipment got away during the capsizing of the barge – a generator. Svoboda said that they plan to retrieve that also.

“As far as we know, only a single generator is loose at the bottom [of the bay],” he said. “Unless something else broke loose, everything else is chained to the barge.”

The biggest concern stemming from the sinking of the barge was the fuel that entered the bay. Between the equipment and the tanks, the combined capacity was 3,900 gallons of diesel, although only 2,400 gallons was reportedly on board. Immediately following the capsizing, a “minor sheen” was seen on the surface of the water in the area of the sunken barge. It was estimated that only a few gallons of oil had leaked into the bay, and that it was vacuumed up immediately. The first effort for divers was to seal the fuel tanks, which they successfully did last week.

According to the Coast Guard, about “1,500 feet of containment and oil-absorbent boom has been deployed on the surface around the barge’s location to contain the sheen and to protect nearby Rose Island.”

The Coast Guard added that a pollution response contractor has been hired to “continuously monitor the site and contain any pollution originating from the barge.”

So can the barge be salvaged? “I’ve had some people tell me [it’ll be] junk when we pull it up, but I don’t know why that should be the case,” said Svoboda. He added that he will have mechanics lined up to “yank the engines apart hoping that everything is salvageable.”

“I’m a novice at this,” he said. “I’ve been in the business 43 years and nothing like this has ever happened. I don’t know what to expect.”

Abhe & Svoboda has the contract to paint and repair the Newport Pell Bridge, which is the longest suspension bridge in New England. The work includes covering the bridge with a zinc coating that helps keep the steel strong. Work started in September 2010 and is estimated to take two years.

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