Runaway barges hit 3 ships, spill soybeans into Mississippi River

Twenty-two barges broke away from the United Bulk Terminals fleeting area near Davant, La., and three of the runaway vessels struck nearby ships, spilling soybeans from a bulk carrier into the Mississippi River. 

The barges were loaded with petroleum coke when they broke free at about noon on Jan. 20. Assist vessels rounded up 21 of the barges. The other one partially sank against a riverbank near mile marker 51, roughly three miles from the terminal, the Coast Guard said. 

The incident occurred when the Mississippi River was above flood stage following a period of prolonged wet weather in the Midwest. At the time of the breakaway, the river current was running 6 mph, nearly twice as fast as normal. 

“I think the extreme high water level and the current obviously played a factor in the whole thing, but also the traffic on river as well,” Gerard Reumer, chief executive of United Bulk Terminals USA, said in a phone interview. 

The company is still conducting its own internal investigation of the incident and he declined to comment on a possible cause. “I can’t fully comment on the whole case because it is still really under full investigation,” he said.

The Coast Guard is trying to determine what caused the breakaway. “It is still under investigation; we don’t know quite what happened,” said spokeswoman Lora Ratliff, who is stationed near New Orleans. 

United Bulk Terminals operates a 1,134-acre complex in Davant that is among the largest coal and petroleum coke export terminals in the U.S. The barges were in a fleeting area near the facility when they broke away. Reumer said terminal employees did not load the barges. 

Two of the runaway barges struck the 751-foot bulker Q Jake and one hit the 544-foot containership Serena P, both of which were downbound in the river, the Coast Guard said. One barge hit the 620-foot bulker Ocean Tomo, which was at anchor. 

All three ships sustained damage, and one of the vessels released dry-bulk soybeans into the river. It was not clear which vessel released the soybeans, Ratliff said, and the scope of damage to the vessels was not available. 

The Coast Guard did not have the name or dimensions of the barge that partially sank against the riverbank at mile marker 51. Ratliff said none of the coal product inside the sunken barge reached the river.

Couvillion Group of Belle Chasse, La., began the salvage shortly after the accident despite the high water. The barge landed on the left descending bank with its box end above the surface and the rake in deep water. The company’s salvage plan filed with federal agencies called for use of salvage hatches, compressed air, multiple winch wires and a crane for stability. 

After the breakaway, the Coast Guard closed the Mississippi River between mile markers 51 and 54. The restrictions were removed on Jan. 22.

By Professional Mariner Staff