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Oil spill cleanup begins in Mississippi

River closed; damage unclear

VICKSBURG, Miss. — Cleanup crews with booms skimmed oily water from the Mississippi River a day after a barge with more than 80,000 gallons of oil struck a railroad bridge near Vicksburg, spreading a sheen of light crude that kept part of the waterway shut to ship traffic Monday, authorities said.

It remained unclear Monday how much oil had leaked into the river, according to the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers. Petty Officer Third Class Jonathan Lally, a Coast Guard spokesman, said oil was still discharging, but slowly.

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Lally said crews were looking for oil roughly 50 miles downriver from the site. Officials expect little, if any, environmental impact there because of the swift current.

Officials said they did not know how long it will take to transfer oil from the damaged barge to another barge or how long the river would remain closed to traffic.

The spill backed up at least 24 tugboats, barges, and other vessels on the normally bustling corridor, said Kavanaugh Breazeale, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg. The river was closed to traffic for 16 miles — 8 miles north and 8 miles south of Vicksburg.

Breazeale said the damaged barge had eight tanks, with each holding up to 80,000 gallons of oil. He said the investigation had shown that one tank was pierced above the water line.

Tugs were holding the barge near shore on the Louisiana side of the river, south of the bridge it hit and directly across from Vicksburg’s Riverwalk Casino.

An orange containment boom was stretched across part of the river downstream from the barge, and a backup boom was in place. Crews also were using a rotating skimmer device to sweep up oily water.

Herman Smith, superintendent of the Vicksburg Bridge Commission of Warren County, said the railroad bridge gets hit about once or twice a year, usually during floods. During a 2011 flood, it was hit five times in two weeks.

The river isn’t in flood stage now, Smith said. It was at 33.5 feet Sunday.

Coast Guard spokesman Lieutenant Ryan Gomez said investigators reported that a towboat or tug was moving two tank barges when the collision occurred about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. The second barge was not damaged, Gomez said.

Authorities declared the railroad bridge was safe for trains.

United States Environmental Services, a response-and-remediation company, is handling the cleanup.

The oil appeared to be coming from one or two tanks at the stern of the first barge. There was no indication that any oil was leaking from the second barge.

Crews also were preparing to transfer the remaining oil from the damage tank. Gomez said it would first be moved to one of the nondamaged tanks on the same barge, then shifted to another barge.

Gomez said the barge was heading south at the time of the collision, but investigators were still trying to determine how the accident occurred.

The barges are owned by Third Coast Towing of Corpus Christi, Texas. A woman who answered the phone Monday at the company declined to comment.

An oil spill closed a portion of the lower Mississippi River for less than a day last February after an oil barge and a construction barge collided. In 2008, a fuel barge collided with a tanker and broke in half.

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