KITTERY — A heavily traveled bridge that connects Maine and New Hampshire is expected to be closed for two to four weeks while workers repair steel beams that were damaged Monday when a 470-foot tanker went adrift in the Piscataqua River and hit it.
Four steel beams on the 73-year-old Sarah Mildred Long Bridge will have to be replaced or repaired, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation said Tuesday.
The bridge between Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H., carries about 14,000 vehicles a day. The river is now open to ship traffic but the bridge will be closed to vehicles while the repairs are being made.
The accident left a crack in the ship about 18 inches long, about 15 feet below the water surface, said the Coast Guard, which is investigating the accident.
A dive team went into the water Tuesday to examine the ship, the MS Harbour Feature, which draws down 30 feet into the water.
Water was leaking through the crack into a ballast tank that stabilizes the ship. The tank is normally filled with water when the ship is not carrying cargo, said Lt. Nick Barrow, a Coast Guard spokesman. He said water was being pumped out of the tank.
The ship is loaded with tall oil, made from wood pulp, and yellow grease. Barrow said the crack was not causing any cargo or fuel to leak from the ship.
The tanker took on its cargo at the Sprague Energy terminal, upriver in Newington, N.H.
About 1:30 p.m. Monday, it broke away from the New Hampshire State Pier in Portsmouth, where it was tied up to refuel before sailing to its destination in Europe. The swift incoming tide of the Piscataqua River carried the ship to the bridge and pinned it there.
Two tugboats moved the ship back to the pier about four hours later, during the slack tide.
The incoming tide, which moves at more than 5 mph at the pier, is so strong that the port limits the times when ships can dock, based on the tide, said Port Director Geno Marconi.
“We’ve got a very strong tidal current,” he said.
New Hampshire Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement said Monday night that both vertical supports of the bridge sustained damage. He said chunks of granite cracked off the base of the supports and landed on the ship. A crane on the ship cracked the sidewalk on the bridge, which was already closed.
Bryan Bush, vice president of Pepperell Cove Marine, the company that’s responsible for tying up ships at the New Hampshire State Pier, said his workers were not at fault.
“The breakaway had nothing to do with our company,” he said, without elaborating.
Bush said he was interviewed on Tuesday by Coast Guard investigators.
The ship is owned by a German company, Sechste Nordtank Hamburg GmbH.
TB Marine Shipmanagement in Hamburg is responsible for its operation, logistics, maintenance and crew, according to IHS Fairplay, a global company that provides information about the shipping industry.
Neither German company could be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Sarah Long Bridge is owned equally by Maine and New Hampshire, although New Hampshire operates the bridge, a section of which is raised for ship passage.
The two states will move forward to repair the bridge as quickly as possible and then take action to get reimbursement from whoever is responsible for the accident, said Bill Boynton, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.
“We are going to fix it and then look to recover the costs if we can,” he said.
New Hampshire officials expect to announce their cost estimate on Wednesday. The two states’ attorney general’s offices are working together to seek reimbursement.
Because a new Memorial Bridge between Kittery and Portsmouth is still under construction, there is now only one bridge in the area — the Piscataqua River Bridge on Interstate 95 — connecting Maine and New Hampshire.
Built in 1940, the Sarah Long Bridge is at the top of New Hampshire’s list of bridges that need to be replaced, Boynton said. The bridge is slated to be replaced in 2015.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: