WHEELING, W.Va. — Mike McArdle finds tremendous satisfaction in managing the daily operations at the Pike Island Locks and Dam to ensure the dam runs properly to allow daily passage of vessels traveling the Ohio River.

McArdle, who has been an operator for nearly 12 years, said it is essential for vessels such as coal barges to reach the nearby power plants in order for those plants to provide the necessary electricity on which people rely in their day-to-day lives.

Being an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, his occupation has many requirements including the ability to operate the necessary equipment, like control valves and dam gates to adjust the water levels in the lock channels.

It also requires critical thinking and time management skills needed to ensure safe operations at a facility that must be manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, despite the weather conditions.

“I’m in charge to make sure everything runs safe,” McArdle said. “I do have to make decisions based on my experience. The vessels that we have here mostly carry coal. They go to the power plants that are up above us and below us. . Basically we control the pool with the dam. We have a schedule that we follow.”

He said from “sheltered” control stations above the large pool chambers — the largest is 1,200 feet long by 110 feet wide — the water level in the lower pool is raised to match the level on the upper pool through the use of hydraulics, allowing barges and other commercial and recreation vessels to travel from one side of the dam to the other. Barges are not permitted to exceed a depth of nine feet.

During the early part of the 20th century, locks and dams were initially built along the Ohio River to establish reliable navigation depths along the river for the movement of goods. McArdle said they control the pool level at the facility for navigation reasons only.

“That’s what our task is. . We have a schedule in the office that we follow,” he said.

McArdle said on any given day it is common to see nearly a dozen large barges, carrying thousands of tons of coal, traveling north through the Pike Island facility to reach their destination at one of two nearby power plants. He said they return within the next day or so with an empty load while making a return trip to one the area’s coal facilities.

“It’s a cycle. Some are quicker than others,” McArdle said.

Whether it is ice forming on the river or debris collecting from flooding, Mother Nature is one force that can create problems for the facility, according to McArdle.

“When we get ice, sometimes it can be very bad. Sometimes it clogs up the river,” McArdle said.

He said there are times when the barges force large amounts of ice into their chambers, thus forcing the facility to back up the barge so they can drain the chamber down and flush out the ice.

He said they follow a procedure when this occurs.

“Fortunately this year we didn’t have any,” he said.

Working as a locks and dam operator is a very unique job, McArdle acknowledged.

“I do like it,” he said, adding most people traveling daily on W.Va. 2 past the facility don’t really have a true understanding of why and how the facility operates.

“Most people don’t know why, and the important thing to remember is that coal is the vital resource for electricity. . We have seven locks on the Ohio (River) and most of the locks look like this. They have gated dams where we control the pool all the way up and down the river,” McArdle said.

Information from: The Intelligencer, http://www.theintelligencer.net