PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – There are boats that float and there are boats that sink, and then there’s the MG Marine Barge.
The crane-topped vessel that partially sank into the Providence River more than four years ago is completely submerged with the exception of its crane, which shoots up into the air and has become a familiar feature of the riverscape along Interstate 95 near the Big Blue Bug.
State environmental officials have tried for years to remove the barge, which many complain is an eyesore and environmental hazard. But the agency’s attempts have been repeatedly thwarted by a frustrated owner – who has since died – as well as federally protected ospreys and, most recently, a disagreement between environmentalists and regulators over how best to get it out of the water.
“CRMC raised concerns with what is referred to as the ‘guillotine’ method of dismantling the crane barge,” R.I. Department of Environmental Management spokesperson Michael Healey explained last week, referring to the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council.
The CRMC has broad authority over permitting on projects within a certain distance of any coastline throughout Rhode Island. The regulatory agency recently put an end to an effort by DEM to hire a contractor and remove the MG Marine, saying the guillotine method of using a large steel beam to chop the barge into smaller pieces would be too disruptive to the riverbed.
“That was problematic,” said Laura Dwyer, CRMC spokesperson. “DEM put out an RFP without eliminating guillotine work — something CRMC has informed them isn’t appropriate in this location.” (An RFP is a request for proposals, the state process to seek bidders on a contract.)
Based on past experience removing a partially sunken Russian submarine used in the Harrison Ford film “K-19: The Widowmaker,” Dwyer said that part of the Providence River is too soft for guillotine work, which would “drive the barge deeper into the mud each time and require too much sediment removal.”
“In addition, if any parts of the barge come off underwater [it] will require digging to remove — if we can find them,” Dwyer added.
As a result of those concerns, DEM withdrew the plan – which had already enticed interest from multiple removal companies. The agency is now pivoting to consider other methods, including “lifting the barge out of the water altogether and sending salvage divers down below the water surface to cut it with torches and remove the pieces,” Healey said.
The 114-foot barge weighs between 100 and 200 tons.
“The biggest issue has been financing: finding the money to clean up this mess,” Healey said, adding that he didn’t want to put a specific price tag on how much it would cost to remove the barge because the state would be seeking quotes. But he estimated it would eventually come out to be “several hundred thousand dollars.”
Dwyer said CRMC has no concerns about removing the barge “in one fell swoop.”
The disagreement over how to remove the vessel is the latest hang-up for DEM, but it’s hardly the first. The agency has faced headwinds for years, beginning with the barge’s owner – Mark Ginalski – who battled with DEM and the U.S. Coast Guard over how the deal with his deteriorating vessel when it was still afloat.
After it sank in 2017, Ginalski sharply criticized the Coast Guard, claiming crews could have prevented it from going down, but instead “watched it sink for three hours.” A 2019 Coast Guard inspection obtained by Target 12 shows officials were concerned with the rusted and rotted deck of the barge for years.
When Ginalski refused to pay for the removal himself, DEM issued a notice of violation in October 2018 and threatened to assess fines. Ginalski appealed the violation, triggering administrative legal procedures, which were still underway when he died in early 2019.
After Ginalski’s death, DEM went after his estate to see if he had left any money or assets that could be used to pay for the barge removal. “He had none,” Healey said.
Fast forward to 2021: the state put out the request for proposals to remove the barge, only to find ospreys had decided to nest in the crane, putting a question mark over the timing.
“In the event ospreys do return, the crane cannot be removed until they leave the nest, which is generally sometime in late August to mid-September,” state procurement officials wrote in purchasing documents a year ago. “As a result of the above, DEM has decided to modify the date to complete all work to no later than March 31, 2022.”
Ospreys are a protected species under federal law, and while Healey said the state could have lawfully removed the barge even before the ospreys left, they decided to wait.
The birds have since sought a new home, but DEM’s challenges remain.
There is currently no timeline for when next steps could happen, and the lackluster progress after more than four years has frustrated environmentalists who have long advocated for the barge’s removal.
“It’s been extremely frustrating,” said Mike Jarbeau, Narragansett Baykeeper at Save The Bay, who argued the location of the barge contributes to why it hasn’t been removed sooner.
“If this had happened anywhere else in the state – if this had sunk in Jamestown, in Newport Harbor or off of Narragansett Town Beach, it would have been out of there within a week,” Jarbeau said. “For some reason, there seems to be a different perception of the Port of Providence and the upper bay area as this dirty area, and that’s not the case.”
In addition to environmental concerns relating to the barge, Jarbeau is also wary of how close the MG Marine is to the Providence shipping channel, saying a storm could push the vessel into that area and disrupt commerce. More broadly, he added, its presence hurts the ongoing effort among advocates to clean up the bay.
“The fact there is basically this huge piece of litter and garbage in the bay is not helping the cause,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s on the state,” he added. “It’s their responsibility to get this out of there, and if there are problems or concerns, I think four-plus years is more than enough time to figure it out.”