Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Barge Break-aways—an ever-present risk

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine. By LT Matthew Meskun, chief, Prevention Department, U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh, and CWO William Perkins, marine inspector/investigator, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi River.

Because of their efficiency, barges are the primary commercial cargo transportation mode. Unfortunately, from time to time, barges can break free from their mooring or towing arrangements and are swept down the river, potentially wreaking havoc to the river system until they are either corralled by assisting towing vessels or salvaged (if the barges have sunk).

For example, this picture shows what’s left of a hopper barge after an allision with the Eads Bridge in 2005. The vessel was traveling southbound on the upper Mississippi River as part of a 15-barge tow when it hit a bridge and broke away from the tow.

Barge Break-away Locations
There are two primary locations where barge break-aways occur: either at a fleeting area facility, or from a towing vessel underway.

Many factors can contribute to a barge break-away that originates from a fleeting area, such as impact from large items floating downriver, high winds and current, rapid changes in water levels, or human error. Break-aways may also occur when other barges hit the fleeting area.

Normally when a barge breaks from a towing vessel underway, the tow hits some drift or other obstruction. This collision then breaks the wire gear holding the barges together as a unit. This event can also cause a chain reaction, as the break-away barges can hit other barges further down the river.

Barge Break-away Prevention
Federal regulatory bodies, river industry associations, working groups, and companies have all taken active roles to promote methods that reduce barge break-aways. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) oversees the location and placement of each fleeting area facility. Each fleeting area operator is required to submit a fleeting area operations manual that provides detailed information and procedures for a river’s different stages and conditions.

Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit (MSU) Pittsburgh has created additional preventive measures that have been adopted by other Coast Guard units on the Western Rivers. One very successful outreach effort is an annual barge break-away seminar that highlights the importance of properly maintaining the fleet in order to prevent barge break-aways.

Another initiative that MSU Pittsburgh spearheaded is random fleeting area facility inspections, conducted with USACE partners. The joint inspection teams visit fleeting facilities to:
  • check the condition of the materials used to secure the barges,
  • ascertain overall worker safety efforts,
  • verify training practices,
  • affirm the use and currency of the approved fleeting area operations manual.

Barge Break-away Response
Coast Guard response to a barge break-away notification typically seeks to mitigate any hazard to navigation. The operations specialist standing radio watch in the sector command center receives the notification and issues an urgent marine information broadcast to alert all vessels in the area of the barge break-away and to request assistance from any available vessels in the area.

Once the situation is under control and all hazards have been removed, the Coast Guard will stop all operations at the source of the break-away. The operator of the responsible fleeting area will be required to investigate and determine the cause of the break-away, and submit a proposal on how to rectify the discrepancy to prevent a similar reoccurrence.

The Western Rivers system is a vital part of America’s economy, and preventing barge break-aways on it is critical. The industry, USACE, and the Coast Guard are working to ensure that the inland river transportation system remains open and free-flowing for the efficient trade and movement of commerce.

For more information:

Full article and “Focus on Safety” edition of USCG Proceedings is available at www.uscg.mil/proceedings. Click on “archives” and then “2008 Vol. 65, Number 2” (Summer 2008).

Subscribe online at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/subscribe.asp.Online survey available at: http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/survey.asp.

Direct requests for print copies of this edition to: HQS-DG-NMCProceedings@uscg.mil.