A tow line pushing 15 loaded coal barges hit the Clark Memorial Bridge on Dec. 25, causing all barges to break free. Six of the freed barges were recovered, but nine remain on the dam, including seven sunken barges. Each barge holds between 1,500 and 1,800 tons of coal.
Crews began loading piles of coal left on the stranded barges onto other empty barges Wednesday morning. After the coal is transferred, the two barges still afloat will be removed and the seven sunken barges will be lifted, according to Shawn Kenney, assistant operations manager for the locks and dams in the Louisville district with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers approved a finalized salvage operation plan Tuesday. Lt. Cmdr. Michael Metz of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley said the operation was delayed because it took a while to both transport and safely stage the heavy equipment required for the salvage effort.
It likely will be weeks before crews complete the barge recovery, Kenney said.
"This is going to be a day-by-day basis of looking at the river conditions," he said. "It's something where we have a good idea a few days in advance of what the river conditions are going to be, but every morning we're going to look at it and make a decision about how to proceed on that day."
Crews are recovering as much coal as they can, according to Kenney. He does not know how much coal sank to the bottom of the river, and he said there are currently no plans to recover any from the river bottom.
One barge is lodged under a gate at the dam. Kenney said he does not anticipate it being an issue, but if the river level drops to where the gate must be closed, it could prevent transit of vessels in the area.
Metz said the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard and Tennessee Valley Towing, the company involved in the crash, have been working together since the incident occurred.
"We're doing everything that we can," he said. "It's a team effort, and we're working toward the end and making sure this gets salvaged and taken care of timely, but safely, most importantly."
Tennessee Valley Towing is responsible for the whole cost of the operation, Kenney said.
Metz said 15 barges is a normal amount to be transported by towing vessels on the river. The investigation into the cause of the Dec. 25 crash is still ongoing.
He said the Coast Guard's response to the situation is not affected by the government shutdown because the salvage operation is considered an essential operation.