The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating why a pair of passing tows crashed into each other in the Mississippi River, causing a chemical leak and sending three crewmembers to the hospital.
Merrick Jones, a 128-foot towing vessel pushing 26 barges, was heading south and backing off a right descending bank July 26 near Richardsons, Tenn., when the tow collided with one of two tank barges being pushed by Dixie Express, an 87-foot northbound towing vessel.
Dixie Express‘ barge, containing acrylonitrile, was punctured, said James Fayard, a Coast Guard marine safety investigator for Sector Lower Mississippi. The chemical is a highly flammable liquid used in the manufacture of plastics.
Visibility at the time of the 2045 accident was clear and the temperature was 95 degrees with no wind.
The Mississippi River was closed to commercial and recreational traffic for 12 hours from mile marker 776 to mile marker 769 following the collision of the two tows at mile marker 775.5.
Fayard said the damaged vessel was tank barge Kirby 30001T. Kirby Inland Marine LP of Houston owns and operates Dixie Express and Kirby 30001T. Damage to the barge was cracked wing void tanks on the starboard side resulting in a puncture to the starboard cargo tanks #2 and #3, five feet above the waterline.
Kirby 30001T collided with Merrick Jones‘ tank barge DBL-33, which was empty and received only minor damage. Neither towing vessel was damaged.
Kirby Inland Marine didn’t respond to requests for comment. Merrick Jones was operated by New Orleans-based Canal Barge Co., which also didn’t respond.
Following the collision, the Coast Guard was on the scene immediately, and the leak aboard Kirby 30001T was secured. Cleanup crews from the Tipton County Sheriff’s Department, Kirby Inland Marine and the Covington Fire Department responded.
Covington Fire Chief Jerry Craig said that the chemical leaked into the void space in the barge and “very little” went into the river. He said that acrylonitrile easily dissolves in water and evaporates quickly.
“Acrylonitrile is 100 percent miscible in water, so it is impossible to recover any released product that enters a large water body like the Mississippi River,” the Coast Guard said in a statement.
The chemical remaining on the damaged barge was lightered to a receiver barge, Kirby-11023. Following the lightering, the then-empty Kirby 30001T transited south to a shipyard for repairs.
Merrick Jones did not have to lighter prior to continuing on to its destination due to no cargo present in DBL-33.
Although there were no injuries, three crewmembers aboard Dixie Express who were exposed to the fumes were picked up by Kirby’s tug Henry Soudelier and transported to Methodist North Hospital in Memphis by EMS. Craig said that vapors of the chemical are toxic and that the men were taken to the hospital as a precaution.
Fayard said the collision was still under investigation in early October.