Seven of nine coal barges that drifted down to the dam after a Christmas night accident have sunk. | Photo by Mark R. Long

The team tasked with pulling up seven sunken coal barges at the Falls of the Ohio is on site and is expected to start salvage work early next week, the Army Corps of Engineers said Friday.

The salvage crew is expected to stage its equipment, including a motor vessel, flat barge and two cranes, by the upper dam over the weekend, a Corps spokeswoman wrote in an email. “They are working diligently to finalize the salvage plan and get it approved,” she added.

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, with the aid of a team of divers. A spokeswoman for Tennessee Valley Towing declined to comment on the incident, which is under investigation.

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 in an email. The company, a unit of PPL Corp., didn’t expect the incident to affect operations at either of those plants. There were no operational impacts at the Ohio Falls hydroelectric facility, either, she said.

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

In a prepared statement, the Kentucky Environmental Protection Agency said it believed much of the coal remains in the barges. “When they are raised, the Cabinet will assess whether there is any environmental concern from the remaining coal in the river and what action may be taken, if necessary, to address a release.”

Ward Wilson, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, said the coal doesn’t belong there and it needs to be cleaned up, but environmental damage likely isn’t acute, as toxic metals like selenium, arsenic and mercury are locked up in the unburnt coal.

“It would be worse if it was ash,” which contains high concentrations of the metals and is more soluble, Wilson added.