Sky Cam view of damaged coal barges

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The U.S. Coast Guard said a seventh coal barge now sits at the bottom of the Ohio River after a towboat crash on Christmas Day.

Fifteen barges broke loose after the towboat Debbie Graham crashed into the Second Street Bridge. Seven of the barges sank, and the remaining collected at the McAlpine Dam just above the Falls of the Ohio. Some are partially underwater, and one is lodged in the dam gate.

The Coast Guard said salvage teams with heavy equipment could arrive as early as Wednesday night. In the meantime, tons of coal are sitting at the bottom of the Ohio, and that could cause problems long after the barges are gone.

Mark Tomlin of Louisville came to Ashland Park in Clarksville on Wednesday to take a look for himself.

“I can see four barges from here that's in trouble,” Tomlin said as he sat in his pickup truck.

He has been fishing the Ohio for 30 years and is concerned about the impact of the tons of coal dumped into the river.

“Could lose some fish,” Tomlin said.

Environmentalist Jason Flickner agreed with that assessment.

“I think you could see some fish species that are driven away from it just because it is the introduction of a new substance into the river, and it disrupts their normal behavior,” said Flickner, director of the environmental group Lower Ohio Valley Waterkeeper.

Flickner said since the coal is in solid rock form, the biggest impact will not be on water quality but to life that exists on the riverbed itself.

“You've got all kinds of mussel species that you're now introducing a whole bunch of coal that has never been there before,” he said. “Those mussel species are going to be impacted by this crash.”

Flickner said it is fortunate the barges do not contain more hazardous materials. He said the company responsible must pay not just to raise the barges but fix the damage to the river.

“There needs to be an assessment and mitigation for any damage to the habitat of the Ohio River,” Flickner said.

Even Tomlin knows after the barges are gone, it may take awhile for fishing to return to normal.

“I'm not a scientist or engineer, but it's going to be different,” he said.

The Tennessee Valley Towing Company is paying to raise the barges. When the operation begins and how long it could take will depend on river conditions.

In a statement, Coast Guard Lt. Commander Michael Metz said his agency is working closely with the company and the Corps of Engineers to develop a salvage plan.

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