Clean Up of Mississippi River to Begin after Tow Boat Collision Spills Oil

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Bruce Schreiner and Adrian Sainz

COLUMBUS, Ky. (AP) — Clean up crews planned to go into the Mississippi River on Friday in Kentucky after a collision between two tow boats caused an oil spill that prompted the closure of that part of the river.

The collision Wednesday evening near Columbus, KY, damaged at least one barge carrying clarified slurry oil. The cargo tank ruptured, causing thousands of gallons of oil to spill into the river, the U.S. Coast Guard said. No injuries were reported.

The river was closed Thursday from mile-markers 938 to 922, Petty Officer Lora Ratliff said.

The barge was carrying about 1 million gallons, but the breach was only in one area, affecting just one of its six tanks, Ratliff said. That tank holds 250,000 gallons, and Lt. Takila Powell said a little more than 120,000 gallons spilled into the river.

The Coast Guard said it was working with the barge owner, Inland Marine Services, and an oil spill response organization. Inland Marine Services referred calls to its public relations person, Patrick Crowley, who did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Both tow boat operators had been interviewed by Coast Guard investigators and underwent drug and alcohol testing, but results weren’t back yet, Powell said.

“We are working diligently to try to restore our marine transportation system,” Powell said. “We understand that it is vital.”

The Coast Guard determined five barges were damaged in the collision, but nothing other than the oil leaked into the river, Powell said.

The tow boats were moored on opposite sides of the river and a long gash was apparent in the smaller vessel. River traffic was backed up on both sides, though it wasn’t yet known how many vessels were backed up. By Thursday evening, there was no sign of a large cleanup operation.

Powell said cleanup efforts had started with the barge and that crews put a boom around the ruptured cargo tank to prevent any residual oil from leaking into the river. Cleanup crews Friday will go into the river to try to determine where the oil is, with a goal of trying to recover as much of the oil as possible from the river.

Some oil was recovered from the surface during cleanup operations Thursday, Powell said, but she didn’t know how much.

Powell said the oil is thick and has to be heated to be transferred or moved.

“How this type of product typically would react is that when it reaches the water that is of a lower temperature, it would solidify and sink,” she said Thursday. “But one of the things that we will be doing (Friday) is trying to determine where that oil has migrated to, to try to determine whether or not it has moved down the river or if it’s still in the vicinity of where the collision occurred.”

The collision happened in the middle of the river channel near Columbus, Kentucky, late Wednesday, the Coast Guard said. The cause was under investigation. The closure stretched 17 miles south to the city of Hickman.

Powell said it was hard to say how much of the oil was released mid-channel because the barge was eventually pushed up to the bank.

Powell said there had been no reports of fish kills.

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