Quick Takes

Officials say water supply is safe as barges remain stuck at Ohio River dam near Louisville

By: - March 29, 2023 8:03 pm

Barges piled up against the McAlpine Dam shut down river traffic through the Louisville lock. (Photo provided by Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet)

Federal and state officials say a salvage team won’t be able to remove barges pinned against an Ohio River dam in a “navigation accident,” one of them carrying about 1,400 tons of the industrial chemical methanol, until the river levels drop. 

Several barges were set loose in the early morning hours Tuesday, leading to three of them getting stuck against the McAlpine Locks and Dam near Louisville. Officials recovered one of the three Wednesday morning.

While the other pinned barges were carrying soy and corn, one of the barges was carrying liquid methanol. 

Methanol is a colorless, liquid chemical used for a  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. 

In a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg and officials from several agencies reassured the public that water supplies were safe and that there still was no evidence of a methanol leak into the river. 

“More than 80 air quality samples have been taken so far, and all tests to date show no evidence of hazards that would pose a health risk, though teams are continuously monitoring the situation,” Greenberg said. “We are also taking water samples on a regular basis. Again, there’s no evidence of any leaks at this time.” 

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has been conducting the water sampling while a private environmental contractor, CTEH, is conducting the air samples. Methanol can evaporate into the atmosphere due to its volatility, which is why air samples are being done. 

The barges that came loose are owned by Ingram Marine Group based in Nashville. Company CEO John Roberts said their main objective is the safety of the broader community and the salvage personnel involved in recovering the barges. 

“We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it right,” Roberts said. “We’re going to make sure that we don’t take a bad incident and make it worse.” 

Roberts said it’s believed the pressure of the river current is what is pinning the barges to the dam, and the water levels would have to fall to relieve that pressure. 

A representative with a salvage company said the materials inside the remaining pinned barges, including the one containing methanol, would have to be removed before the barge could be lifted from the water and recovered. 

Rob Blair, a response coordinator with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said if all of the methanol had a catastrophic release into the water, the chemicals would likely dissipate within 15 miles downstream and not affect the any water supply, though fish could be killed. 

“It will take some time for this chemical to break down in the water before we would actually have impacts to the aquatic life,” Blair said. 

The water utility for Louisville and the next nearest downstream water utility in Kentucky drawing from the Ohio River have both stated water supplies are safe.  

U.S. Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley Commander Heather Mattern said the agency is still investigating the cause of how the barges became loose and that river traffic had reopened at the dam.

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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.