Salvage workers started pulling coal off barges pinned against the dam at the Falls of the Ohio. | Photo by Mark R. Long

Workers Wednesday began pulling coal off barges pinned against the Falls of the Ohio dam after a Christmas night accident, part of a salvage operation officials say they hope will be finished in a matter of weeks.

Crews anchored their recovery gear to an existing point upstream, but may need to set additional anchors on the Indiana shore to help them pull out seven barges sunk at the dam, said Shawn Kenney, the Army Corps of Engineers assistant operations manager for the McAlpine Locks & Dam.

“It’s delicate work in that the river conditions are ever changing,” Kenney said at a news conference Wednesday. He said it could take a day or two to unload the coal from a single barge, but added much of that work will be done blind, making time estimates difficult.

“The plan itself does not lay out a specific timeline,” he said on the sidelines of the event. “I’m hopeful it’ll be weeks and not months.”

Nine barges drifted down to the dam at the Falls after an accident at the Clark Memorial Bridge on Christmas night, only two of which remain fully afloat. The towing vessel Debbie Graham was pushing upstream 15 barges, which carry 1,500 to 1,800 tons of coal each, when it went off course and struck the bridge. Six of the barges were recovered.

The Debbie Graham’s owner, Tennessee Valley Towing, is responsible for the cleanup and has hired Big River Shipbuilders Inc. and McKinney Salvage & Heavy Lift to jointly handle the salvage work.

In a statement on Tuesday, Sarah McGee, general counsel for James Marine Inc., which owns Tennessee Valley Towing, said that the salvage plan would be closely monitored and could be amended if conditions warrant. She later declined to comment on the incident, which a Coast Guard spokesman said remained under investigation.

So far, Kenney said, crews only aim to scoop up coal that is still on the barges.

“Right now, with what we know, there are no plans to recover anything that’s on the river bottom.”

The coal was mined in Western Kentucky and was bound for LG&E and KU’s Trimble County and Ghent power plants, a spokeswoman for the utility said. The company, a unit of PPL Corp., didn’t expect the incident to affect operations at either of those plants.

The accident occurred downstream of Louisville’s water intakes and state officials say it likely won’t cause widespread environmental damage.

Jason Flickner, director of the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper, an advocacy group, said it would be more worrying if the team tried to recover all the coal at the bottom of the river.

“If they were going to try to go and scrape the bed to try to get that coal up, then you’re releasing PCBs into the water column,” he said, adding the rock coal is inert.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Metz spoke to reporters Wednesday. | Photo by Mark R. Long

Lt. Cmdr Michael Metz, a Coast Guard spokesman, declined to comment on the investigation but said there was nothing unusual in the arrangement of barges that struck the bridge.

“Fifteen barges in a three-by-five configuration, it’s very standard,” he said. “That configuration runs up and down this river on a daily basis.”

Metz added that he and his colleagues continue to work on this incident and other essential operations as normal, even though the Coast Guard has been affected by the partial government shutdown.

The incident hasn’t been very disruptive to navigation on the river, because water levels have remained high enough to allow the Corps to leave open the dam’s gates, one of which is blocked by a sunken barge.

“If we didn’t have high enough flow conditions and the pool was drawn down, then we may not have enough navigable depth in the river for vessels to transit the area,” Kenny said. “We don’t anticipate that to be the case though.”