Crews on Tuesday prepped equipment ahead of the start of salvage work expected to start Wednesday morning. | Photo by Mark R. Long

Work to begin salvaging seven sunken coal barges at the Falls of the Ohio is set to begin in earnest Wednesday morning, the Army Corps of Engineers said Tuesday.

The contractors hired to retrieve the sunken barges and two others floating pinned against the dam at the Falls have completed their plan, which entails the placement of large “deadman” anchors on the Indiana shore, Katie Newton, a Corps spokeswoman, said. She declined to estimate how long the operation would take.

“It has to be assessed day by day due to river and weather conditions,” Newton said. “Everyone wants to complete this as quickly as possible, with safety in mind.” The salvage crew aims to recover any cargo remaining on the barges, even those that are submerged, Newton said. 

Nine barges drifted down to the dam at the Falls after an accident at the Clark Memorial Bridge on Christmas night. 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 Coast Guard said.

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

In a statement, Sarah McGee, general counsel for James Marine Inc., which owns Tennessee Valley Towing, said the salvage plan will be closely monitored and could be amended if conditions warrant.

“TVT continues to cooperate with USCG, USACE and other governmental agencies to safely and quickly raise the barges,” she said in the statement. She declined to comment on the Christmas night incident, which a Coast Guard spokesman said remains under investigation.

The salvage plan is two-pronged, with work to start Wednesday to retrieve the coal from a half-drowned barge and the two floating ones closest to shore. Those barges will be moved out of the way and crews will use the anchors to pull out the six remaining sunken barges.

Recovery of the barges closest to the Indiana shore will begin once the coal is removed from them. | Photo by Mark R. Long

“We expect the installation of those anchors to begin later this week, at the earliest,” Newton said.

Crews could be seen early Tuesday preparing their equipment, which includes two cranes, the motor vessel Tuscaloosa, and a flat barge, near the Indiana shore. A worker installed signs on Monday warning non-authorized people to stay away from a portion of the shore close to the barges. Onlookers, some posing for family photos with the barges in the background, have periodically thronged Ashland Park since the Christmas night incident.

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 last week. 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.

Last year, more than 4,800 vessels with total tonnage of over 54 million moved through the McAlpine locks, according to Newton of the Army Corps. Nearly 20 million tons of coal passed through last year, as did just over five million tons of chemicals and 3.4 million tons of food and farm goods, Corps data show.

This article has been updated with a statement from the company that owns the towing vessel Debbie Graham.