Barging into River Security

Jan. 29--OAK RIDGE -- About a billion tons of hazardous materials are transported on inland waterways each year, nearly a fourth of the total moving across the United States.

In this age of terrorism, that's a lot to be worried about.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is trying to adapt technologies to improve the tracking of barges, identify potential problems and ultimately bolster the nation's river security.

"We don't want to be alarmist on this," said Mike Hilliard, who's heading ORNL's involvement on the project. "It's not that we don't have any idea where these barges are. The Coast Guard has a pretty good system. It's just that we'd like to move it to a new level and track these (shipments) in real time."

The Oak Ridge lab is working with Mississippi State University to evaluate current tracking methods and possible improvements. The early-stage work is funded by a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security's Southeast Regional Research Initiative. Some tests with prototype technologies could be conducted before the end of the year, possibly on barges in the Tennessee River system.

Hilliard, an operations researcher with ORNL's Center for Transportation Analysis, said tracking efforts are focused on a group of chemicals designated as "certain dangerous cargo," or CDCs, such as anhydrous ammonia, butane, ammonium nitrate, chlorine, methane, propane and sulfur dioxide.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. Coast Guard began enforcing new regulations for movement of dangerous cargoes. Tow operators must report when these chemical-laden barges enter and exit ports, pass high-population areas or go through locks.

"Basically, they want to know where these are in case of emergencies," Hilliard said. "They want to know what's coming through a city at any time."

The system, however, is partly dependent on the trustworthiness of tow operators, and Hilliard said reporting can be imprecise because tow boats push as many as 15 barges at a time -- all lashed together with steel. If one of those barges is disengaged, that isn't necessarily reflected in records.

One of the project's goals is a system that monitors the movement of individual barges, with data available in real time, Hilliard said.

Use of the Global Positioning System will likely be a component of any tracking system, he said, noting, "That's the best way to tell where you are."

The biggest technical question is how to relay information and maintain contact with shore-based installations, said Hilliard, 49, who has worked at ORNL since 1983 and was involved in the lab's logistical work for the U.S. military during the first Gulf War.

The inland waterway system is a convenient way to move bulk materials around the country because a single barge can accommodate the equivalent of 58 truckloads or 15 railcars.

The environment, with heavy barges banging against each other in all types of weather, however, is not as tech friendly as Interstate highways or rail lines, Hilliard said.

"It's not necessarily the easiest thing to get electronics to survive in, to get signals in and out," Hilliard said.

The tracking system needs to process information and automatically identify suspicious activity -- such as abnormal tow times or a barge moving in a direction that's unexpected.

ORNL is working with Mississippi State's Industrial and Systems Engineering Department. The research activities will be conducted in the region, likely using the lower Mississippi, Tennessee and the Tennessee-Tombigbee river systems as test beds.

"We're going to prototype some automated tools and try to identify potentially suspicious situations with those tools," the ORNL researcher said.

Hilliard said the project team has met once with the Coast Guard to discuss the plans. The Coast Guard's Inland River Vessel Monitoring Center is based in Alexandria, Va., where about 100 reports are received daily on hazardous cargoes.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.