Oncoming tows collide on Mississippi River, spilling oil from barge

About 6,800 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Lower Mississippi River after two barges collided near Reserve, La.

The 1,500-hp tugboat Alydar was pushing a 195-foot construction barge northbound toward Garyville on Feb. 17 when it collided with a tanker barge being pushed by the 1,300-hp tug Rev. Clarence W. Settoon, which was southbound toward Venice.

U.S. Coast Guard investigators trying to determine what caused the accident are looking into whether the tugboat captains made passing arrangements before the collision occurred.

“That’s part of what we are we are determining, whether or not they communicated with each other,” said Lt. j.g. Laura Williams, an investigating officer at Coast Guard Sector New Orleans. “We have interviewed both crews, but we are going back and re-interviewing both crews.”

She added that the Coast Guard recorded radio chatter on the standard channels and would be “going back and listening to the replay of it.”

The accident occurred immediately after or shortly before midnight near mile marker 139, about 50 miles upriver from New Orleans. The port corner of the construction barge struck the oil barge mid-port, causing a 10-foot-by-5-foot gash in the 297-foot, double-hulled tank barge SMI 30020, above the waterline. There were no injuries, and neither of the tugboats were damaged.

Skies were clear and temperatures were about 60 degrees when the accident occurred. Visibility was up to five miles and the river’s current was normal, Williams said. She added that the accident occurred amid a long, slow bend in the river.

Sections of the Lower Mississippi were closed to vessel traffic as a result of the incident. Marine traffic was affected for nearly 36 hours, as a five-mile section of the river was closed for several hours and then was open only for one-way traffic until mid-morning on Feb. 18.

The federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund was tapped to pay for cleanup, which was performed by the contractors ES&H, OMI Environmental Solutions and the Coast Guard. All told, 101 people worked to clean up the oil, traces of which were found nearly 45 miles downriver at the Huey P. Long railroad bridge near New Orleans, Williams said.

Cleanup crews laid 4,700 feet of hard containment boom to minimize damage to riverbanks and other sensitive areas, and collected 100 bags of oiled debris and 40 bags of oiled sorbents, according to the Coast Guard.

Williams described the impact of the oil spill as “scattered” on the banks of the river. “It wasn’t like both banks were covered. There were some open spots. (Some) of the oil collected in barge fleeting areas, which acted like a natural collection area, and that reduced the shoreline impact,” she said.

Alydar was operated by New Orleans-based Turn Services LLC. Rev. Clarence W. Settoon was operated by Settoon Towing, which is based in Pierre Part, La.

Representatives from both companies did not respond to requests for comment on the accident.

The outcome of the Coast Guard investigation could have serious consequences if either company is found at fault. For one thing, Williams said the at-fault party would likely have to pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to cover the cleanup cost.

The Coast Guard said cleanup efforts along affected sections of the river wrapped up Feb. 28.

By Professional Mariner Staff