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Bulkhead dam fix at Montgomery Locks and Dam a Band-Aid

| Friday, Feb. 12, 2010

The Army Corps of Engineers is planning emergency measures to protect an Ohio River dam from potential damage ice flows and barges could cause with high waters.

The Corps needs the Montgomery Locks and Dam in Beaver County to be operational so boats can bring coal, road salt and oil products in and out of Pittsburgh. But the dam's failing gates make it vulnerable to damage that could halt river traffic, Corps spokesman Jeff Hawk said Thursday.

"We are always concerned about the conditions at Montgomery. Those lock gates need to be replaced," said James R. McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, which promotes the region's river commerce. "The Corps of Engineers is not being given the funding to replace them, but it is constantly a concern. The condition of those gates is very tenuous."

If the dam's gates are damaged, river commerce probably could continue without much trouble, as long as snowmelt and precipitation keep water levels high, said David Sneberger, the Corps' chief of navigation. That should give workers about a week, a few days more than they need, to fix the dam so it can hold back enough water to keep boats afloat, he said.

A worst-case scenario could leave river levels too low for boats to travel and drain the water supply of several Ohio River towns, Hawk said. The Corps' river dams primarily control river traffic, and industries use the Ohio to ship materials, McCarville said.

Damage likely would not lead to flooding because the dams aren't for flood control, but the risk of flooding in coming weeks is high, Hawk said. A quick snowmelt combined with spring rain could overwhelm tributaries, Hawk and weather forecasters said. Residents should start preparing by moving items out of basements, Hawk said.

At the Montgomery dam, eight of 10 gates are so corroded they have failed or are near failure. Corps workers will set up an underwater shield, akin to a steel door, early next week. But that protection, called a bulkhead, covers only one gate, leaving the dam vulnerable to having its other seven gates blown out, Hawk said.

That happened in 2005, when a breakaway barge destroyed the dam's two best gates and caused $8 million of damage, Hawk said. The incident was one of several problems in recent years for the dam, which spans from Industry to Potter.

A week before that accident, the towboat Elizabeth M and three coal barges went over the dam. The accident killed four of seven crewmen and closed river traffic for several days during the recovery mission.

Another barge strike in 2006 briefly closed two gates. A Corps study that year deemed the dam one of the worst on the Ohio River. It could cost as much as $30 million or more to fix all the gates, and the Corps is using patchwork repairs, Sneberger said.

"We're taking them from really poor to poor is just basically what we're doing," Sneberger said.

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