Tow strikes Miss. bridge, spills oil; river closure delays 1,000 barges


Two barges carrying crude oil on the Mississippi River struck a railroad bridge at Vicksburg, Miss., breaching a tank on one of the vessels and causing an oil spill that prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to close a 16-mile stretch of the waterway.

The 82-foot towboat Nature’s Way Endeavor, owned by Nature’s Way Marine LLC of Theodore, Ala., was pushing the barges downriver at 0112 on Jan. 27 when they hit one of the bridge’s concrete piers, said Lt. Ryan Gomez, spokesman for Coast Guard Sector Lower Mississippi River in Memphis, Tenn. The barges were loaded in Catoosa, Okla., and were en route to Baton Rouge, La.

The 252-foot MOC 12, which was carrying 672,000 gallons of light sweet crude oil, was the lead barge in the tandem. It sustained damage to the stern void, the No. 5 port tank, the starboard wing tank and the No. 4 starboard cargo tank, Gomez said. The cargo tank, containing 80,000 gallons of crude, was breached and spilled an unknown quantity of oil into the river. Coast Guard officials on Feb. 1 estimated that about 7,000 gallons of oil were unaccounted for, but they said some of it may have seeped into void spaces on the barge.

The 297-foot MOC 15, carrying 1.1 million gallons of oil, sustained a 21-foot tear on its port side but did not spill any of its cargo, Gomez said. Both barges are owned by Third Coast Towing LLC of Corpus Christi, Texas.

The river was closed to all traffic eight miles north of the bridge and eight miles south of it — from mile marker 425 to mile marker 441 — as cleanup crews deployed 5,300 feet of boom to contain the spill. The oil remaining on the barges was pumped to other vessels to complete an assessment of the structural damage, the Coast Guard said. Temporary repairs were then made to allow the barges to be moved to a marine facility near Vicksburg.

Restrictions on river traffic began to be lifted on Jan. 30 and the Coast Guard reopened the waterway to all vessels on Feb. 2. More than 1,000 barges were delayed during the course of the cleanup and salvage.

Gomez said the cause of the incident was still under investigation. The National Weather Service reported fog in the Vicksburg area on Jan. 27, with no precipitation and wind speeds of 8 to 18 mph. The river was running at 33 feet, 10 feet below flood stage. Gomez said there are navigational buoys near the bridge and that the structure is lighted.

Herman Smith, superintendent of the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, said the bridge is struck by vessels an average of about 1.5 times a year. It was hit five times in 2011 due to high water conditions and the resulting increase in current speed, which Smith said increases the difficulty of navigating the winding stretch of river.

“When you have the river up near 35 feet and the current picks up, (vessel operators) are fighting it from two directions. It’s coming in from behind them and it’s also hitting them in the starboard side,” said Smith, who estimated the flow at 8 to 10 mph at the time of the Jan. 27 incident.

“There is a 90° bend in the river about three quarters of a mile above the bridge, and they have to come way down into the bend before they can actually make their turn. If they try to ride the edge and stay closer to the Louisiana shore, they can wind up pushed right into the Mississippi bank with no control whatsoever.”

Smith said the bridge was closed for about six hours after the barges struck it so it could be inspected. It was then reopened for traffic. The bridge is about 400 feet north of another span that carries Interstate 20 over the river.

Skimming crews recovered 9,953 gallons of oil and oil-water mixture during the cleanup, Gomez said. United States Environmental Services, Ergon Marine & Industrial Supply and Magnolia Marine Transport Co. participated in the operation.

Drug and alcohol tests were administered to the three crewmen aboard Nature’s Way Endeavor — the master, a pilot and a deck hand — but the results could not be disclosed because of the continuing investigation, Gomez said. Repeated calls to Nature’s Way Marine LLC were not returned.

There were no injuries reported in the incident and no adverse impact to wildlife, the Coast Guard said.

By Professional Mariner Staff