Just after mile marker six on the Ohio River is the Emsworth lock and dam, the first dam downriver boaters encounter after leaving Pittsburgh. I locked through it on a sunny, bitter cold morning a month ago and traded river stories with a lock worker as my boat and I were lowered downstream. Both he and I wished longingly for the warm weather promised by the lower reaches of the watershed. He hoped to someday take a similar trip from the Allegheny headwaters. The gates opened and I paddled out into the river. We wished each other safe journeys.
For nearly a month I have shared the Ohio with lockmaster’s and towboats–powerful vessels that move steel, coal, oil, rubble, gravel, sand, and grain through the heartland of America. This industrial fleet provides jobs and materials that run the mid-western economy. Each barge (which can be grouped up to 30 or more in a tow) takes the place of 58 semi-trucks on our roadways. Though nearly forgotten by many the Ohio and Mississippi are still America’s superhighway.
Work on a towboat is hard. Deckhands and crews face long shifts away from home, as well as cold, wet, and dangerous conditions on the water. Earlier today just upstream from the Emsworth lock and dam a small tow holding a mixed cargo of steel, coal tar light oil, and slag broke apart and became lodged on the dam and a railway bridge–forcing school evacuations and raising fears of explosion and air pollution from the barge full of coal tar light oil.
Around Pittsburgh, and up and down the river, hazardous cargoes make up a large portion of the material shipped by barge. One of the barges that broke loose today sunk quickly after the accident–it was loaded with steel–had it been transporting chemicals, oil, or industrial waste the communities downstream might have faced a disaster with flood waters only helping to spread the material onto city streets, into drinking water, and across farmland.
Requiring industry to be more accountable for its waste and transitioning to new technology less dependent on hazardous chemicals will help protect not only the river and its human and natural communities; but the young man working on the lock in Emsworth, the cook on a towboat bound for Louisville, and the rescue workers sent out into the river to recover lost cargoes.