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Barge Stuck in Columbia River is Freed

by Matt Preusch
The Oregonian, July 10, 2009

The barge New Dawn, being pushed by the tug The Chief, heads up the Columbia River tonight after being freed from a sandbar at the mouth of the Hood River. It had been stuck since early Thursday but floated free after its fuel payload was unloaded onto a second barge. (Matthew Preusch/Oregonian photo) HOOD RIVER -- They raised the Columbia River and pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel from the vessel's hold, and after two days of being mired in the mud the fuel-bearing barge New Dawn is afloat.

"At 6:54 we backed her off. She's free," said Holly Robinson, spokeswoman for Tidewater Barge Lines.

The 284-foot-long vessel ran aground early Thursday in the Columbia River, just off the mouth of Hood River about 60 miles east of Portland, as a tug pushed it upstream -- along with the 1 million gallons of gasoline in its hold.

Its release brings to a close a three-day drama that began with fears of a possible environmental catastrophe and grew into simple frustration over a balky barge stuck on a sandbar.

Officials with Tidewater Barge Lines, the vessel's owner, said the barge would proceed to its destination in Pasco for unloading.

Federal officials tried raising the river level behind Bonneville Dam to float the barge free Thursday, but it wouldn't budge. So workers spent Friday pumping gasoline out of the grounded barge and into the second one at a rate of up to 75,000 gallons an hour.

By 6 p.m., the barge finally started to come free, and workers stopped transferring fuel.

By 7:15 p.m., the barge had passed under the Hood River Bridge and was headed upstream near Bingen.

A hose is lowered into position earlier today between a grounded fuel barge on the Columbia River and a second, empty barge where the fuel was then offloaded. (Matthew Preusch/Oregonian photo) Among those following the events was Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Hood River-based conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper. As the pumping began Friday, VandenHeuvel was motoring in an aluminum boat not far from the barges, taking water samples.

He said that in the case of a gasoline spill, officials don't put booms out to corral the fuel because it's too volatile. Rather, they allow it to evaporate while trying to deflect it from especially sensitive areas.

A spill of any sizeable portion of the New Dawn's 1 million-gallon payload would spell doom for many of the river's creatures, among them endangered salmon.

But no gasoline had been detected in the Columbia as night crept in Friday, and inspections of the barge's double hull haven't revealed damage.

The barge's departure won't end the episode entirely, however.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the cause of the accident, which the company attributes to the barge running onto an unmarked sandbar in the wide river's navigational channel.

On Thursday, Coast Guard officials suggested the channel may have become overly full of silt where it passes by the Hood River, which flooded in 2007, shooting tons of rock and mud into the Columbia as part of the smaller river's evolving delta.

A dispute remains over whether the New Dawn, part of a four-barge float pushed by the tug The Chief, was inside the navigational channel when it ran aground. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for keeping the channel at a required depth.

The Corps said the official channel is 46 feet deep at Hood River, based on soundings taken in 2008.

The company said, and a visual survey of the scene suggests, that the New Dawn was well within colored buoys marking the edge of the channel.

But that historic channel is larger than the one Congress charges the Corps with maintaining for shipping traffic, said Corps spokesman Matt Rabe.

"The boats should stay within the federally authorized navigation channel," Rabe said.

The consequences if they don't?

"Running aground," he said.

Matt Preusch
Barge Stuck in Columbia River is Freed
The Oregonian, July 10, 2009

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