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Another Disaster Hits Ohio River as Barge With 1,400 Tons of Methanol Submerges After Dam Incident

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: March 29, 2023
A barge carrying 1,400 tons of methanol has crashed in the Ohio River near Louisville Kentucky
A photograph of a trio of barges, one containing 1,400 tons of methanol, submerged and pinned against the McAlpine Locks and Dam on the Ohio River near Louisville, Kentucky, on March 28, 2023. (Image: Via the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet Twitter account)

Another environmental disaster involving a shipping company has hit the Ohio River after a barge lost 10 of its 11 tugs upon colliding with a dam.

One of the three trapped barges carries 1,400 tons of methanol and remains partially submerged while beached on a dam inlet in Louisville, Kentucky, according to a March 28 announcement by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet (EEC).

Reporting by USA Today affiliate Courier Journal says that the derailment occurred downstream of Louisville in an area two hours away from the nearest water inlet station.

A spokesperson for the Louisville Water Company told the public the location of the calamity was fortuitous in the sense that it wasn’t likely to impact the city of 628,000’s water supply.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced on its website that the locks and dam mechanism at the area would be sealed in response to the incident.

“Three barges are pinned against the lower dam site, one barge is pinned against the Louisville and Indiana bridge pier and all other barges were recovered by other vessels in the local area,” the message stated.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, navigation industry and marine surveyors to start the recovery efforts of the remaining barges. The locks will remain closed until the barges on the dam are stabilized.”

Drone footage of the crash scene published by CBS affiliate WLKY on March 28 showed a trio of barges pinned horizontally against the legs of the dam, with one of the containers showing a clear break in its outer shell.

While March 29 reporting by ABC paraphrased the USACE as stating “it recovered the barge pinned against the pier by noon Tuesday,” a joint update published between the City of Louisville and USACE published on the Corps’ Facebook page states otherwise.

According to the update, as of the morning of March 29 “three barges remain settled against the lower McAlpine Dam structure along the Ohio River.”

“The cargo carried aboard the barges are corn, and one vessel with three independent cargo holds containing approximately 1,400 tons of Methanol,” the announcement stated.

Henderson Water Utility Superintendent Josh Thompson was paraphrased as telling Courier Journal that if the barge did leak, “It would take at least a couple of days for the chemicals to travel the approximately 200 miles of river” between the crash site and Louisville.

According to the National Library of Medicine’s PubChem website, methanol “appears as a colorless fairly volatile liquid with a faintly sweet pungent odor like that of ethyl alcohol,” which, “completely mixes with water.” 

PubChem says methanol is used in chemical manufacturing, to remove water from combustion engine fuels, and as a paint and plastic solvent.

It adds, “The vapors are slightly heavier than air and may travel some distance to a source of ignition and flash back. Any accumulation of vapors in confined spaces, such as buildings or sewers, may explode if ignited.”

The website says that side effects are limited, “Acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) exposure of humans to methanol by inhalation or ingestion may result in blurred vision, headache, dizziness, and nausea.”

However, while it’s noted that “no information is available on the reproductive, developmental, or carcinogenic effects of methanol in humans,” PubChem states that, “Birth defects have been observed in the offspring of rats and mice exposed to methanol by inhalation.”

The EEC was paraphrased by WLKY in a second article as stating that if the methanol did leak, “it should dilute quickly,” but that “they would expect some fish to die.”

Although the message is that the situation is under control and will soon be resolved by cleanup workers, in 2019, a similar barge disaster occurred in Kentucky on Christmas Day when 15 barges ran into the Clark Memorial Bridge.

WLKY says that it took 6 months to get all 15 barges out of the water.

Environmental disasters in the area are a sensitive subject following the February derailment of a 150 car Norfolk Southern Railway train in East Palestine, Ohio, that saw the company incinerate thousands of tons of vinyl chloride into the nearby environment in order to get the rail lines open and returning to operation more quickly.

Local independent reporting in the area showed swathes of dead fish in nearby bodies of water.

Although East Palestine and Louisville are roughly 400 miles away from each other, East Palestine is only a few miles away from the Ohio River.

Reports following the February disaster as far away as Canada showed that fallout from the chemical spill and its burn off were far from localized in the region.