By SHAUN KIRBY
The Rhode Island Transit and Bridge Authority is making preparations to raise a 300-ton barge which sank on October 30 during a nor’easter which brought heavy winds across Narragansett Bay. The barge, which rests in approximately 100 feet of water, was carrying out structural repairs and re-painting on the Pell Bridge. On Monday morning, state officials were brought out to the Chesapeake 1000, the salvage vessel responsible for hauling up the sunken barge, to learn about the specific nature of raising such a vessel from the bottom of Narragansett Bay.
“This is a very delicate and complicated operation and we want to make sure that it is done properly,” said Jerry Burbank, Project Manager of Abhe & Svoboda, Inc.
Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. of Prior Lake, Minnesota, owners of the barge, was hired by RITBA to direct the repair work on the Pell Bridge until the vessel sank. The company has subsequently contracted Donjon Marine Company, Inc. to conduct the actual salvage operations under the Pell Bridge.
“We brought in Donjon because it is one of the two most reputable salvage companies on the east coast,” said Burbank.
Donjon Marine Company, Inc. has provided the Chesapeake 1000, a 191 foot long, 2,484 gross-tonnage salvage vessel which will haul the barge from the sea floor. It carries a 265 foot high crane boom which can lift approximately 1,000 tons. The vessel also employs a four-point anchor system in which 8,000 pound anchors are dropped into the ocean floor on each corner of the ship, providing stability while the crane is readied to lift it.
“The crane is called a Derrick crane, meaning it is big and doesn’t rotate,” said Paul Hankins, Vice-President of Operations for Donjon Marine Company, Inc. “It is important that the crane is positioned directly above what you are trying to lift. It could be a real danger if we start to lift the barge and the anchors are not soundly settled.”
Divers from aboard the Chesapeake 1000, which typically conducts work in the New York City area and traveled to Narragansett Bay from Newark, New Jersey, will attach slings across the sunken barge which lays upside down on the sea floor. They will use large water pumps to remove the mud in which the ship and its equipment, which is welded to the barge’s deck, are stuck.
“When the barge sank, it flipped and hit the bottom upside down,” said Hankins. “Just attaching slings, it sounds easy. In 100 feet of water and mud, however, it is difficult to do and because the ship is so deep, our divers don’t have a lot of time to work on the bottom”
Officials from Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. and Donjon Marine Company, Inc. hope to begin raising the barge today. The process itself is expected to take about four hours, but factors such as weather and the condition of the three diesel fuel tanks which are attached to the barge may slow the operations down.
“If the wind is above 20 knots, it is too much force against the lift, and things get really dicey,” said Hankins.
“Our biggest concern is to keep the fuel tanks intact,” he added. “We will lift the barge and set it down in shallower water so divers have time to remove the tanks.”
The double-walled tanks contain approximately 2,400 gallons of diesel fuel. State environmental agencies such as DEM and Save The Bay have conducted assessments and do not feel that the diesel fuel poses a significant threat to the surrounding ocean ecosystem.
“There’s been a diesel sheen on the water, but there was no thickness or depth to it,” said David Darlington, Chairman of the Board of Directors at RITBA. “The Coast Guard and DEM don’t seem to be terribly concerned because whatever spillage there is seems to be minor, not that they are not concerned.”
“We’ve seen periodic sheening , but we are not seeing large amounts of it,” said Jill Eastman of DEM’s Office of Emergency Response. “It is diesel, so it will dissipate pretty quickly.”
“We already have a boom off of Rose Island, and when the actual lifting of the barge occurs, Clean Harbors will be out there with extra booming,” she added.
Gail Svoboda, President of Abhe & Svoboda, Inc., expects the losses to total more than $1 million, but the figure will not be definitive until the barge is brought to the surface and the equipment taken out and reconditioned.
“It is a question of how much damage the salt water has done to our equipment,” said Svoboda in October. “One air compressor costs about $140,000 and we had three. There is also a recycling unit on the barge which costs about $300,000.”
“It is hard to tell how much damage has been done, and a lot of the equipment has probably been crushed,” said Burbank. “There is a good chance it may not be salvageable, but our main objective now is to get the barge up and protect the bay.”
Insurance arrangements are still being made by Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. Svoboda also ruled out any prospect of human error involved because of the video-taping which divers produced in October showing no damage to the barge.
“At first, we were afraid that another barge might have struck it, but from what we know the barge is lying on its side with indicating no such damage,” said Svoboda. “The waves were probably just too high and the barge went over center.”
“The winds surprised us all,” he added.
The barge was working on a four-year renovation project organized by RITBA and conducted by Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. Repairs began on the bridge in September 2010, and the current phase of work is scheduled to be finished by the end of December. Svoboda anticipates that work will be completed briefly behind schedule.
“We are double shifting the other barge that we have out there now until we get the equipment back up and running,” said Svoboda. “I’m sure we will lose about a month or month and a half before we’re back in shape, but we’ll see.”
Phase one of the project will see the 11,248 foot long Pell Bridge blast-cleaned and repainted with a protective coating, covering approximately 1 million square-feet of the bridge’s steel structural surface.