Grounding Columbia River

by Hans | July 17th, 2009

HOOD RIVER — This city awoke today, as it did Thursday, to an unwelcome guest at its front door: a barge laden with 1 million gallons of gasoline run aground in the Columbia River. As evening approached Thursday, the river was rising a whole foot — an effort by dam managers up and down the river to float the barge free. But it failed. And a backup plan to offload some of the gasoline to another barge was shoved off till this morning.

  So it goes on the river that carries the region’s commerce but also is home to renowned runs of federally protected salmon as well as recreationalists. Kiteboarders zipped around the marooned barge all day Thursday. The stakes remain high. A gasoline leak — and none was detected after inspections early Thursday by the U.S. Coast Guard — could be environmentally catastrophic. But the double-hulled vessel New Dawn, owned by Tidewater Barge Lines of Vancouver, was described by a Tidewater official midday Thursday as merely stuck in the mud and soon to float away. Where and why the barge ran aground at all remained an open dispute. Tidewater, which transports grain, fertilizer, and petroleum and wood products the full commercially navigable length of the Columbia and Snake rivers, insisted the New Dawn ran aground within the Columbia’s shipping lane. Officials for the company said the tugboat captain pushing the New Dawn kept it between the imaginary lines that mark the river’s channel — where there is sufficient depth for passage. Coast Guard officials agreed, relying on GPS coordinates they had taken placing the vessel inside but on the southern edge of the channel. At Hood River, it is about 300 feet wide and historically about 40 feet deep. “The chart that we have been looking at all day does have the position of the vessel in the channel, albeit on the southern tip,” said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Ryan Harry in Portland. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains the Columbia’s navigation channel, marking it with red and green buoys and allowing gasoline to be carried upstream to Pasco, Wash., as the New Dawn was doing early Thursday. And the corps said the New Dawn was 1,000 feet outside the approved channel — due south of it — when it ran aground. “Based on the coordinates the Coast Guard gave us, the barge and tug are way outside the channel,” said corps spokesman Matt Rabe in Portland. The mishap occurred at roughly 3:15 a.m. Thursday, when the New Dawn was part of a four-barge tow being pushed by the tugboat The Chief. Only the New Dawn ran aground. Its adjoining barges were untethered midday Thursday and towed off, leaving the gasoline-laden New Dawn stuck. But complicating the picture is the unseen riverbed itself. Riverbeds are dynamic, and the barge ran aground where the Hood River enters the Columbia, depositing a big fan of silt and rock well into the larger river. Two years ago, a flood in the Hood carrying rock, dirt and debris expanded the reach of the sandbar at that river’s mouth into the Columbia by 26 acres. On Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard said the buildup of additional material may have contributed to the grounding. “We’ve had mariners report it, and it appears to be excessive,” said Capt. Fred Myer. “At this time, this appears to be one of the contributing factors.” Tidewater on Thursday described the New Dawn’s grounding as hitting an “uncharted sand bar.” Rabe said the corps hadn’t heard any complaints about a new shallow sandbar near the mouth of the Hood River. “Our best source of information is from the river pilots themselves finding shallow areas of the river, and this is not an area they have mentioned,” Rabe said. The Coast Guard said it was continuing the investigation into the grounding, and neither the Coast Guard nor Tidewater would release the name of the tug captain. At the Coast Guard’s request midday, the corps cut the outflow from Bonneville Dam, downstream from the New Dawn, while maintaining the flow at The Dalles Dam, upriver from the scene. The result was a net gain of water behind Bonneville Dam and at Hood River, but the river level would remain within normal operating parameters, according to Rabe. Irrigation, shipping, power production, recreation and fish management were unaffected. So, too, was the positioning of the New Dawn. This is the second time in two years a boat owned by Tidewater has been involved in an accident on the Columbia. Last February, a Tidewater tug pushing two empty grain barges and a barge filled with 1.7 million gallons of diesel fuel ran into the upstream gate at the John Day Dam’s navigation lock on the Columbia River. No injuries or fuel leakage were reported during that event by the corps. Though there was not fuel spilled in either incident, environmental groups continue to worry about the possible impact of millions of gallons of petroleum products being dumped into the region’s great waterway. “The potential barge spills are a huge concern to us,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Hood River-based conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper. He spent the day monitoring the barge from his boat and with binoculars from his office. “Just because it hasn’t happened in the last several years doesn’t mean we can become complacent,” he said.

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