Salvage crew arrives to begin process of raising barge
Earlier this week, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority invited members of the press and other interested parties on a boat trip to inspect the salvage preparations. On hand to answer questions were representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Management, Donjon Marine, and Abhe & Svoboda. Donjon Marine is the salvage company, and Abhe & Svoboda is the Minnesota contracting company in charge of the sandblasting and painting project on the bridge that leased the barge that is currently sitting on the bottom of Narragansett Bay.
Lt. Brian Hall of the Coast Guard said, “The Coast Guard is the federal on-scene coordinator. Basically our job is to make sure that the responsible party, which is Abhe & Svoboda, is doing what is necessary to mitigate the pollution and the cleanup.”
State Rep. Deb Ruggiero was also on hand to observe, as was a staff member from U.S. Congressman David Cicilline’s office. Chris Fierro, district director for Cicilline, said that they were interested because of the environmental and infrastructure implications.
“[The congressman’s] interest is in getting this remediated as quickly and safely as possible,” said Fierro. “There’s a very impressive level of engineering out there. I’m personally confident and I’ll relay that to the congressman.”
Said Ruggiero, “I’m happy to know Save the Bay and DEM are involved with this operation to protect the environment from the fuel leaking from the vessel. The booms they’ve put up around Rose Island will protect the seals that swim there. Lifting that ves- sel from the ocean floor is an ambitious project, requiring care and diligence. It’s good to know how the contractors will do it to ensure safety.”
What was originally thought to be a relatively straightforward recovery process was complicated when divers discovered that the barge had flipped upside down as it sank, and was lying bottom up in approximately 100 feet of water. The biggest concern is that there are three tanks onboard the barge that contain approximately 2,400 gallons of oil.
Based on the information provided by the divers, Abhe & Svoboda sought assistance from Donjon Marine, a salvage company that operates primarily in the waters off New York and New Jersey.
The journey of Chesapeake 1000 – the barge carrying the 265- foot tall crane needed to raise the 350-ton barge from the bay floor – was an arduous one. It took 30 hours to arrive in Narragansett Bay from Newark Bay.
“We were in a big hurry to get it up, and we wanted to get to it the week after it went down, but there were a couple of issues,” said Jerry Burbank, project manager for Abhe & Svoboda. “We found out how the barge was positioned on the bottom. It was inverted and all the salvage people we contacted told us that the operation was much more complicated than they had anticipated.”
“It’s a very delicate and complicated operation, which is why we chose Donjon,” Burbank continued. “Getting everything up here, getting everything in place, and doing all the planning to make sure it’s done properly is the important thing. As far as that’s concerned, I’m happy. We’ve had a few weather delays in terms of getting some of the equipment up here that were just unavoidable.”
Thus far it does not seem as if the sunken barge’s three oil tanks have been compromised. There has been what is being reported as a “minor” oil sheen on the bay, thought to have come from the release of the barge’s diesel fuel. Oil collecting baffles have been placed in the bay in an effort to protect Rose Island.
Divers are currently operating off the barge, preparing the sunken barge for salvage. They can only work for 60 to 70 minutes before having to enter an onboard decompression chamber for two hours to prevent “the bends.” In order to get the lifting straps in place, the divers will have to dig under the sunken barge at the bow and the stern using equipment akin to high-pressure power washing hoses to move the sand.
“Initially the Coast Guard and I got a message about a sunken boat,” said Jill Eastman of the DEM’s Emergency Response Division. “If there is fuel on board, they have to notify us, and then we start investigating and finding the responsible party and working on the clean-up. We make sure that they’re doing what they need to do to get the fuel off as quickly and safely as possible.”
Eastman added that it’s a complicated operation. “To lift a barge off the bottom of Narragansett Bay is not an easy task. It’s a big process, and it’s a lot of investigating by Donjon, in this case, to see how they’re going to do it, and what they need to do it.” Eastman also said that although there has been some oil sheening on the water from the start, and it is still apparent, she considers the overall oil release situation to be stable.
The raising of the sunken barge is expected to take place on Thursday, Dec. 1, and will take about four hours. The operation will require the salvage team to flip the sunken barge over so that it is right side up in a process known as par buckling. If the structure is still intact, the crane cradling the lifted barge will be moved to an anchorage in shallow water close to the Naval War College.
At the new location, the salvaged barge will be sent to the bottom again, where divers can work in the shallower water to remove the oil from the barge’s three tanks. If upon lifting it is found that the sunken barge’s structure has been compromised, an effort will be made to remove the oil without moving the structure to shallower water. The major concern of the entire operation is ensuring that the sunken barge does not come apart, and that the crane and the barge carrying it do not come in contact with the bridge during the salvage process.
“I’m satisfied with the progress so far,” said David Darlington, chairman of the board of the RITBA. “It’s a difficult problem to have with a 350-ton barge at the bottom of the bay. We’ve been insisting from the beginning that it has to come out of there, and sooner rather than later. There are obviously logistical problems. Save the Bay has been involved. DEM has been involved. The Coast Guard has been involved. They are not concerned about the level thus far of any fuel oil that’s gone into the water.”
Darlington singled out the Coast Guard for special praise. “Once the Coast Guard got involved it was a lot easier to understand what all the moving parts are,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a great use of my federal tax dollars, the United States Coast Guard involvement in these types of things.”