Cleanup crews with booms skimmed oily water from the river Monday, a day after the barge accident. (Photo: Eli Baylis/AP)
The railroad bridge hit by an oil barge early Sunday morning has been cleared for traffic as cleanup crews try to contain an undetermined amount of oil that has leaked into the Mississippi River near Vicksburg.
The river was closed to all traffic from eight miles north of Vicksburg to eight miles south of Vicksburg at 1:15 a.m. Sunday after part of a southbound two-barge tow struck a bridge over the Mississippi River near U.S. 80 and began leaking sweet crude oil, said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Ryan Gomez.
"It was the railroad bridge that was struck; the other bridges weren't involved," Gomez said, adding that the bridge has been cleared by railroad authorities.
The river closure is holding up barge traffic, officials said.
"I was told (Monday) morning by the Coast Guard that approximately 10 ships are south of the spill waiting to move up the river. They're in a hold pattern, and there are approximately 10 waiting to move south," Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale told The Associated Press. "The river is closed to make sure that oil is not spreading."
Breazeale said while he doesn't know how long the river will be closed, he does not expect the holdup to be a major one.
"It does put them in a hold pattern, yes, but I don't know if it's that detrimental. If we had a complete halt for days, that's the kind of hindrance that may slow traffic up," he said. "Just to get this oil cleaned up, I don't think it will be too much of a detriment to the barge traffic."
The last time an oil spill closed a portion of the lower Mississippi River was last February after an oil barge and a construction barge collided. Less than 10,000 gallons of oil was spilled.
In 2008, 283,000 gallons of heavy crude was spilled into the waterway, closing the river for six days when a fuel barge collided with a tanker and broke in half.
The two tank barges, which were towed by the tug Nature's Way Endeavor, were loaded with crude oil. Only one has released oil into the river. Breazeale said the damaged barge had eight tanks and each tank could hold 80,000 gallons of oil. He said the investigation had shown that one tank was pierced above the water line.
"It's not leaking that much oil," Breazeale said.
Gomez says an oily sheen was reported three miles downriver of the accident. An EPA spokesman referred questions back to Gomez but did say it's still premature to predict any environmental impact from the spill.
"Rivers have a different dynamic than oceans and gulfs," said the EPA's Jason McDonald. "It's too early to tell."
Cleanup crews were alerted to the spill around 3:30 a.m. Sunday. There has been an active cleanup since they got to the scene, Gomez said. Gomez said crews also are working "to transfer all of the (remaining) crude to a different barge," he said.
According to a news release, Vicksburg's Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit has dispatched a pollution response team to assess the size of the spill and oversee cleanup operations. The source has been contained and tank levels are being monitored for further leakage.
Gomez says booms were set out to absorb and contain the oil. The river has been closed for eight miles in each direction, halting at least five northbound and two southbound vessels.
"What they've done is placed absorbent booms around the barges that will contain any crude oil from the damaged barges, and then additional second boom to contain any crude oil that gets around it," he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Therese Apel, Clarion-Ledger