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Ohio River lock failure halts traffic downstream from Pittsburgh

| Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, 1:48 p.m.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
New Cumberland Locks and Dam in Jefferson County, Ohio

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has halted traffic around an Ohio River lock and dam because the hydraulic system that operates the lock's gates and valves failed.

Staff at the New Cumberland Locks and Dam in Ohio's Jefferson County, about 54 miles downstream of Pittsburgh, discovered the problem Monday after noticing a sheen inside the facility's main lock chamber. The Army Corps determined that 150 gallons of hydraulic fluid had leaked from an underwater line.

“The closure effectively stops navigation on the Ohio River upstream and downstream of the lock, creating a backlog of commercial vessels awaiting passage,” Army Corps spokesman Jeff Hawk said.

When officials shut down the facility, two vessels had been waiting to pass through and 10 more were on their way, Hawk said.

Hawk said the lock will be out of service for at least the next few days while the Army Corps comes up with a short-term solution.

“A more long-term fix could be several months away,” Hawk said.

An average of 320 commercial vessels pass through New Cumberland each month, along with another 120 pleasure craft during summer months, according to the Army Corps.

The Army Corps typically schedules closures for construction and maintenance work on locks and dams at least two years in advance to give companies time to alter shipping arrangements. Unscheduled closures such as New Cumberland's can wreak havoc and be costly for towing companies operating on the river and for companies awaiting shipments of needed supplies, said Mary Ann Bucci, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.

“These unscheduled closures are so devastating,” Bucci said.

Federal data show New Cumberland experienced 15 unscheduled closures last year that placed the facility out of service for more than 45 hours combined, its lowest out-of-service time in five years. In 2014, 26 closures of New Cumberland resulted in nearly 1,800 hours of downtime, data show.

New Cumberland, which opened in 1961, includes main and auxiliary locks. The Army Corps closed the auxiliary lock two years ago because of structural problems. The larger main lock is 1,200 feet long and 110 feet wide. The faulty hydraulic line is the same one that was installed in the late 1950s during the facility's construction, Hawk said.

He said most of the leaked hydraulic fluid was contained to the main chamber, but a small amount escaped into the river. Crews used containment booms to absorb the escaped fluid.

Locks and dams in the Pittsburgh area are among the oldest in the nation.

Many were built in the 1920s and 1930s, making the New Cumberland facility somewhat newer by comparison. Congress has long delayed the billions of dollars needed to repair and upgrade the Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery locks and dams on the Upper Ohio River.

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or

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