Oil cleanup ongoing after barge hits bridge

VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — Experts say the stretch of Mississippi River where vessel traffic was halted after a barge hit a railroad bridge on Sunday is one of the most dangerous along the 2,500-mile-long river.

Late Monday, cleanup crews were skimming oily water near Vicksburg, a day after a barge struck a bridge, rupturing a compartment holding 80,000 gallons of oil.

Authorities said that the spill was light and that only a sheen had been spotted. Orange boom was stretched across part of the river downstream from the barge, and small boats patrolled the area as oil was pumped from the ruptured tank into another tank on the same barge. Officials hope to eventually transfer all the oil to another barge.

Tugs were holding the barge at the bank on the Louisiana side of the river, directly across from Vicksburg’s Riverwalk and Lady Luck casinos.

Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Ryan Gomez said a tug was pushing two tank barges when the collision occurred about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Both barges were damaged, but only one leaked. Authorities declared the bridge safe after an inspection.

Gomez said United States Environmental Services, an oil spill response company, was collecting oily water.

Officials did not yet have an estimate of how much oil had been pumped out, or how much spilled into the Mississippi.

Another Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally, said the oil was contained and skimmers would work through the night collecting it. He said a flyover by a Coast Guard helicopter from Vicksburg 50 miles to the south found no evidence of shoreline impact.

Authorities said a major environmental disaster was unlikely as the swift current dispersed the sheen. They were less certain when the river would reopen to vessels.

Drew Smith, a hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, wouldn’t speculate on the specific cause of Sunday’s crash, which is under investigation.

But he said the Mississippi at Vicksburg is challenging for southbound vessels, mostly barges carrying grain and other products from the nation’s heartland.

Southbound tows must travel faster than the flow of the water for their rudders to steer effectively. At Vicksburg they must negotiate a 120-degree turn on the meandering Mississippi, then straighten up to pass under the railroad bridge and the Interstate 20 bridge.

The task is made more difficult by the Yazoo River, which empties into the Mississippi north of the bridges, increasing the speed of the current.

On Monday, 31 tugboats, barges and other vessels were parked waiting for the river to reopen.

said Army Corps spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale. The river was closed to traffic for 16 miles — eight miles north and eight miles south of Vicksburg.

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