Loose barges, one carrying tons of methanol, pinned against Ohio River dam in Louisville

Published 10:52 am Wednesday, March 29, 2023

By Liam Niemeyer

Kentucky Lantern

Officials from multiple state and federal agencies are trying to recover barges that remain pinned against an Ohio River dam near Louisville, with one carrying about 1,400 tons of the industrial chemical methanol, according to a state agency. Officials said there has not been any evidence of a chemical leak.

A release earlier on Tuesday from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District said that McAlpine Locks and Dam had been closed to traffic on the Ohio River due to a “navigation accident” that happened about 2 a.m. that morning. The agency stated no injuries were reported.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, navigation industry and marine surveyors to start the recovery efforts of the remaining barges,” the federal agency stated. “The locks will remain closed until the barges on the dam are stabilized.”

A tweet Tuesday morning from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet (EEC) said multiple barges were loose from a tugboat, which helps move barges along the river. The tweet also stated one of the barges contained about 1,400 tons of methanol and was partially submerged.

Methanol is a colorless, liquid chemical used for a wide variety of industrial purposes and can have a slight to strong order depending on its purity. If ingested or inhaled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it can cause dizziness, blurred vision, headaches and neurological damage.

The tweet from the EEC stated the nearest water utility intake on the Ohio River in Kentucky was the city of Henderson. The water utility for the city of Louisville stated on social media that its water supply was safe to drink and not affected by the accident.

A release Tuesday evening from the Louisville Metro Government Emergency Management Agency said there is “currently zero evidence of a tank breach or any leaks” and that resources to monitor the air and water were in place. The statement said the other barges were carrying soy and corn and that the U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the cause of the accident.

“Safety is the top concern – safety of the public and first responder personnel,” the statement said. “The Kentucky Environment and Energy Cabinet is currently monitoring water quality and CTEH is monitoring air quality.

CTEH is an environmental contractor that was also hired by freight train operator Norfolk Southern after a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, caused a chemical spill that authorities had to burn off into the air. CTEH tested the air quality inside homes at East Palestine.

Henderson Water Utility Treatment Superintendent Josh Thompson said since the accident, he has been in communication with officials of the Kentucky Division of Water and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, a multi-state agency that monitors and controls water quality on the Ohio River.

Thompson said if there was any methanol leaked into the river, it would take more than two days to reach the city of about 28,000. Methanol is also “quite volatile,” meaning it could dissipate quickly before it ever reaches Henderson.

He said the chemical can be treated by adsorption through the use of activated carbon, which is something his utility regularly uses.

“It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a very large tool in our tool belt and in every water utility’s toolbelt. The ability to grab on to contaminants and remove them from the water stream is massively helpful,” Thompson said. “I would just like to assure our customers that our water is safe. It’s something that we’re constantly monitoring.”