Barge work is collaborative effort

Published 11:33 pm Tuesday, October 2, 2007

VIDALIA — The salvage work to bring three sunken barges up from the bottom of the Mississippi River is a collaboration between private contractors and federal bodies, officials said.

The barges sank in late January, and salvage work has begun now that the river’s level is low enough to permit it.

Before salvage work can begin, the contractors have to get permission from the U.S. Coast Guard, the governing body of the Mississippi River.

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The Coast Guard is coordinating traffic in the river to accommodate the salvage operation.

“The Coast Guard would be involved in making sure all traffic — boats up and down river — know about the operation and can plan accordingly,” Coast Guard District Eight Public Affairs Officer Lt. Ana Visneski said.

When a vessel initially sinks, the Guard broadcasts radio messages to mariners to let them know about the potential hazard, and weekly updates are sent out to remind mariners of the hazard until it is no longer needed, Visneski said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also involved in the procedure.

Once a vessel sinks, the Corps determines whether or not the vessel makes the river hazardous to navigation, U.S. Corps of Engineers Community Services Spokesperson Shirley Smith said.

The Corps has a survey boat they use to locate the barge and determine where it is and at what depth it sank, U.S. Army Corps Engineer Jerry Stewart said.

“If it’s got 50 feet of water over it, it’s not a problem,” he said. “If it’s in the channel but away from where the boats run, the Coast Guard can drop a buoy over it to steer people away.”

Once the determination is made as to the safety of the area, it is up to the Coast Guard to decide whether or not to close the river to traffic, Smith said.

The work being done right now is outside of the main channel and so doesn’t have much effect on river traffic, Budwine and Associates Surveyor Peter Diaz said.

Budwine and Associates is conducting the salvage operation.

“We’re pretty safe where we are,” he said. “We try not to let river traffic go between us and the banks because we do have divers around there.”

Keeping boats away is important because large boats can stir up considerable wakes, Diaz said.

“That kind of jostles them around down there,” he said.

All three sunken barges are now visible, and the water level has been dropping since the salvage operation began, Diaz said.

“Where our guys are working is anywhere from 10 to 20 to three feet deep,” he said.

The first of the barges is located under the Mississippi River Bridge, and the other two are south of the bridge, Diaz said.

The salvage project is expected to take two months.