More than 180 million tons of cargo travel up and down the rivers of the Ohio watershed each year, according to a KyCIR analysis of commodities data from the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The river carries shipments of food, alcohol, fuel, construction supplies and even rocket parts.
More and more, those cargo vessels are carrying non-solid fuels.
Kerosene shipments increased 1,372% in 2017 when compared to data from 2000. Crude petroleum shipments increased 675%. By contrast, coal and lignite shipments decreased 35%.
This trend follows the decline of coal and the increase in natural gas production in this region. Less coal is being mined as more companies go bankrupt and coal becomes harder to extract. Power plants are retiring coal generators in favor of natural gas units, which are not only cheaper but cleaner.
But the non-solid materials taking their place are more hazardous to ship. When a coal barge sinks, it generally stays in one place, said Sam Dinkins, a technical programs manager at the Ohio River Valley Water and Sanitation Commission, an interstate water quality agency known as ORSANCO. But when an oil or liquid hazardous material spills, things get messier, faster.
“Containment of that release becomes problematic because it's going to flow with the river downstream,” Dinkins said. “And so it spreads out, along with the river flow.”
In many cases, the liquid can change the composition and quality of the water — water that residents in the watershed ultimately drink.
The Louisville water supply faced a potential disaster in December 2017. A barge holding more than 300,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer broke in half just south of Cincinnati, Ohio, threatening the city’s water supply downstream.
This particular spill wasn’t due to high water, but it illustrates the potential for danger. As thousands of gallons of urea ammonium nitrate drifted downriver toward Louisville, the city’s water authority took action.
“This spill was unique because it wasn’t like an oil spill where you could see it on the river,” Louisville Water Company spokeswoman Kelley Dearing Smith told WFPL in 2017. “The chemical was soluble, so our scientists really had to track the spill ... to understand how this plume was moving.”
In this case, rain diluted the contamination, and helped it move swiftly through the city. But less than a month later, the rain would cause the barge breakaways near Pittsburgh and in West Virginia.
These inland spills may seem less catastrophic than ocean spills, but they’re more likely to cause harm to the surrounding area, said Lt. Cmdr. Takila Powell, U.S. Coast Guard marine investigations supervisor for the district that includes most of the Ohio watershed.
When you have an oil spill on an inland river, Powell said, water is more shallow and the currents are different than on the ocean. It takes a lot less oil to pose a big threat.
“And plus, there's a higher chance of impact to the shoreline because you're on a river and there's two banks on either side,” Powell said. “So at least one could potentially be impacted.”
What’s Being Done
Government agencies and regulatory bodies say they are working together to improve safety and mitigate harm after accidents occur. But change is slow to come.
For example, Congress passed legislation in 2004 that established mandatory inspections for towing vessels. But mandatory inspections didn’t actually begin until 2018, nearly 14 years later.
But as each year brings more volatile weather than the year before, the agencies say they’re trying to be proactive, rather than reactive.
Only recently did the NTSB begin documenting its accident investigations with an internal database. LaRue said the effort will help provide a “better idea about trending and things like that, and hopefully spot safety issues.”
Such a database, when implemented, could help NTSB create a recommendation report on how to avoid weather-related incidents in the future, but the NTSB still lacks enforcement power. Even if its investigators identify safety protocols that could help mariners deal with extreme weather, it would be up to the Coast Guard to implement them.
Currently, the Coast Guard maintains and operates regional plans that help mariners respond to hazards such as high water or inclement weather on specific stretches of river.
Powell said that during times of high water, the Coast Guard subsectors hold conference calls to discuss river levels, vessel restrictions and weather and river forecasts.
Those forecasts are available for mariners from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association [NOAA], which uses various data points about rainfall and terrain to predict how waterways will react to extreme weather up to 10 days ahead of time.
“That gives them the opportunity to make decisions that are going to help them navigate the rivers safely if the water is coming up quickly,” said Trent Schade, hydrologist in charge of NOAA’s Ohio River Forecast Center. “They have an opportunity to move their boat into a safe harbor.”
But these forecasts give only a short lead on the future of the river. Both the Coast Guard and NOAA say they aren’t focused right now on climate change’s long-term impacts on river safety. When it comes to next year or the next 10 years, the state of the water is much murkier.
Alexandra Kanik is the data reporter for Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting which is part of Louisville Public Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Caitlin McGlade contributed to this report.
Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy, and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.
partial) report is By ALEXANDRA KANIK & KENTUCKY CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING • JAN 28, 2020