Runaway barges full of coal spill into Pennsylvania river

The coal has been spilled.

Coal barges moored to levee. (CREDIT: Getty Images)
Coal barges moored to levee. (CREDIT: Getty Images)

More than a dozen barges carrying coal down a river in western Pennsylvania broke loose Thursday, with two of those barges sinking and spilling coal into the Monongahela river.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Quality says that the spilled coal won’t present a risk to water downstream from the spill. But coal does contain toxic elements like arsenic, as well as heavy metals like lead and mercury.

The spill occurred roughly 5 and a half miles from a drinking water intake owned by Pennsylvania American Water.

The barges were first spotted on Thursday afternoon in the Monongahela River outside Pittsburgh. For several hours, officials stopped traffic on two railroad bridges that cross the river, after a barge struck one bridge and several other barges began floating towards the other.

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Both bridges have since reopened, but CSX — which owns one of the bridges — has said that it will deploy a team of safety inspectors to ensure that the bridge did not suffer any structural damage after being hit.

The barges were operated by Gulf Materials, based out of Braddock, Pennsylvania. At this time, there has been no statement released as to what caused the barges to break loose.

In January, 27 barges — many carrying coal — broke loose on the Ohio River, near Pittsburgh. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned Pittsburgh residents that the incident could cause flooding, as some of the barges that broke loose appeared to be blocking a dam near the city, which could have caused water to backup and overflow. The barges were eventually cleared without flooding.

As of 2014, 12 percent of all coal shipped in the United States was transported by river barge.

The Monongahela River has dealt with decades of legacy pollution, and was named the ninth most endangered river in the country in 2010 by American Rivers.

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Rob Walters, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said that the river has been making progress towards getting cleaner in recent years, but that incidents like the one on Thursday “takes a chunk out of that progress.”

Coal has been a legacy issue on the Monongahela River and there has been lots of coal that has spilled into the river,” Walters told ThinkProgress. “The cumulative impact over a long period of time is an impact on the health of the river.”