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Nor’easter Sinks Bridge Painting Barge

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

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Freak storms that pounded the U.S. Northeast over the Halloween weekend managed a trick that was no treat for one of the nation’s largest industrial painting contractors.

The early-winter storm dumped more than two feet of snow on parts of New England.

Gusting winds and heavy waves from a pre-winter Nor’easter capsized a firmly anchored 120-foot-long barge being used to stage a Rhode Island bridge painting project, sinking both the boat and nearly $1 million in the contractor’s equipment.

A First

It was a first—“and I hope it’s the last”—for Gail Svoboda, president of Abhe & Svoboda Inc., a veteran Minnesota-based industrial painting contractor that has completed painting projects worldwide.

Founded in 1969, the SSPC-certified painting contractor has a $41.3 million contract to abrasive-blast clean and recoat one million square feet of structural steel on the Newport Pell Bridge, which connects Newport and Jamestown, RI, over Narragansett Bay.

The contract was awarded in April 2010, and abrasive blasting and painting had been proceeding smoothly from two barges anchored under the bridge, Svoboda said in an interview Tuesday (Nov. 1). Each barge was moored with four anchors.

Hazardous Materials Removed

On Friday, with forecasts showing a looming early-winter storm, crews removed all paint, supplies and a number of sealed steel drums of paint waste and blasting grit from the barges. The crew also secured the equipment, which, on one barge, included:

• Three $140,000 air compressors, newly purchased for this project;

• A $300,000 grit recycler;

• A $130,000 vacuum;

• An $85,000 generator;

• A $30,000-$40,000 hydraulic pump rig; and

• Several small air compressors.

(Not) Riding the Storm Out

The storm lashed New England and the mid-Atlantic region with sleet, ice, snow and rain Saturday and Sunday, dumping more than two feet of snow in some areas and knocking out power to millions of people.

In the middle of it all, sometime between Saturday night and noon Sunday, one of Svoboda’s barges flipped and went down in Narragansett Bay, taking his equipment with it.

 National Weather Service

 National Weather Service

A weather map shows the beginning of an epic snowstorm across New England.

Ironically, said Svoboda, the barge sunk because it was so firmly moored. With one anchor, the barge could have moved with the rising waves. Four anchors, however, limit the barge’s ability to move—which is good for painting, but not when heavy waves are bucking the vessel from underneath.

In that case, he said, “the barge is not able to ride out the waves.”

The second barge remained righted throughout the storm, Svoboda said.

Forecast Falls Short

Svoboda said his firm moves a barge if winds are expected to be more than 40 mph, but that was not forecast.  When the storm hit, however, winds in Nantucket, MA, about 70 miles from the bridge, were clocked at 69 mph, which is nearly hurricane force (74 mph).

“We got much higher winds than predicted,” Svoboda said. “If we’d known, we would have moved both of those barges.”

The barge contained 2,400 gallons of diesel fuel within three double-walled tanks, and authorities reported a “minor” oil sheen near the sunken vessel.

The U.S. Coast Guard, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, the R.I. Department of Transportation, Clean Harbors, the Newport Harbormaster, and the Newport Navy Base were all notified of the incident.

Recovery: ‘The Ball is in our Court’

It will take at least a week to bring up the barge, and Massachusetts-based Northeast Salvage is on site to begin that operation, officials said. It will take weeks to inspect, clean, repair and attempt to salvage the equipment.

The contractor will bear all of the costs.

“We have insurance for this sort of thing, and the ball is in our court,” Svoboda said.

 Gail Svoboda

 Abhe & Svoboda

“It was the first time, and I hope it’s the last,” said Gail Svoboda.

Still, it could have been worse. First, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority determined that the bridge was not hit by the barge in the storm, and traffic on the bridge has not been disrupted.

Second, had Svoboda’s crew not removed all of the paint, supplies and waste drums before the storm, the environmental damage and recovery cost could have been much worse.

Meanwhile, officials said, the project remains on track for completion in June 2012. Svoboda is running a double shift from the barge that is left.

“We’ve got a month’s worth of work here,” Svoboda said. “But we’re lucky that it wasn’t a mess.”


Tagged categories: Abhe & Svoboda; Access; Air abrasive blast cleaning; Hazardous waste; Industrial Contractors; Paint disposal; SSPC

Comment from Fred Wittenberg, (11/2/2011, 7:31 PM)

I'm sorry about the sinking of this barge, but those that are planning erection of wind turbines off Cape Cod take notice. No matter how smart we think we are, we still have trouble overcoming the forces of Mother Nature!

Comment from Earl Briggs, (11/2/2011, 10:27 PM)

Go figure. Damnd if you do.. Ect.

Comment from Earl Briggs, (11/2/2011, 10:37 PM)

I know the glass is half full. I always consider the worst senerio. That way I can prepare for it. And hope for the best. Sorry to hear abought your setback

Comment from shane hirvi, (11/3/2011, 1:35 AM)

Very tough break for Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. Sorry to hear about the loss of your equipment but thank God that nobody was injured or killed during the storm. Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. is a true leader in the industry and will pick up the pieces from this set back and turn it into yet another success story.

Comment from Brian Chapman, (3/18/2014, 9:58 AM)

It was not the first time Abhe and Svoboda lost a barge. In 1989 while painting the Blossomland Bridge in St. Joseph, MI we had 2 barges sunk under the bridge by bad weather. Substantially smaller barges but they sunk none the less

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