MCKEES ROCKS (KDKA) – There is concern about the potential for a chemical spill in the Ohio River after several barges broke loose and struck a local bridge Wednesday morning.
According to emergency dispatchers, four barges broke free and struck a railroad bridge near Neville Island around 7 a.m.
According to sources, the Allegheny County Emergency Operation Center has been fully activated due to a potential benzene spill from one of the barges. The red barge in the picture below is the one carrying benzene. It is also believed to be about 70 to 80 percent full.
One of the other barges is still resting against the railroad bridge, while another took on water and sank around 11 a.m.
A fourth barge, which was carrying coal, broke free from the bridge and continued down the river toward the Emsworth Lock and Dam.
Officials were concerned that the barge would go over the dam. At the last minute, the barge turned and is now resting against the dam.
There is a tow boat in place should the barge turn and go over the dam. Pennsylvania State Police are also standing by to close the Neville Island and Sewickly Bridges, should the barge make it that far.
At the moment, the biggest concern is the barge carrying benzene.
“The next concern is still our hazardous materials barge that we have on site here. That barge moved approximately three feet during that activity. Right now, our plan is still to hook on to that via a string of empty barges and a tow boat and pull that back upstream,” Alvin Henderson with Allegheny County Emergency services said.
The barge is not believed to be leaking based on a preliminary inspection done when crews first arrived.
“All morning our team of federal, local, state and the responsible party have been looking at a safe salvage plan to take the vessel off the bank and back into a shipyard for exam. This morning we did some preliminary investigation of the condition of the barge. Now, we’re ready to start moving a string of barges up to the barge and [hook up to it with wires] to safely bring it out underneath the bridge and bring it back up to a shipyard,” U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Richard Timme said.
Crews do not believe the barge is leaking based on their inspection.
“We’re dealing with a cargo of benzene, which is a toxic and flammable cargo. And we’re dealing with a risk situation that we would call, low probability, high consequence. It’s a bad thing if the benzene is released. The probablility is very low, but despite that, the precautions of federal, state and local, we’re all here today to take a look at it,” Cmdr. Timme said.
The biggest problem in the salvage efforts is that there is not enough clearance under the bridges for a tow boat to reach them directly.
Students at the Sto-Rox Middle School and Elementary School have been moved to the high school as a precaution. Students will not be dismissed early and classes will be held as scheduled. However, if parents wish to pick up their children, they may do so.
There are no reports of damage to the bridge at this time.
The Fleming Park Bridge has been closed to traffic and motorists are being rerouted to Route 51.
Neville Road has also been closed and traffic has been rerouted to Grand Street.