(Corrects size of barge, makes clear just one compartment
leaking in second paragraph)
* River closed at Vicksburg, Mississippi, since Sunday
* Only 15 barges allowed to pass so far, 1,056 waiting
* Spill contained, but oil still leaking from damaged barge
By Karl Plume
Jan 30 More than 1,000 barges were backed up on
the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Mississippi, on Wednesday
after a weekend barge accident and oil spill forced the closure
of the major shipping artery, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
One 80,000-gallon hold of a tanker barge that struck a
railroad bridge on Sunday continued to leak crude oil, but
cleanup crews have deployed 2,800 feet of boom to contain the
spill and airborne spotters have not detected any oil outside
the containment area.
Response crews will lighter the oil from the damaged barge
before removing the vessel from the river, but a timeline for a
full reopening of the waterway to commercial shipping traffic
"A timeline is really hard to establish with an operation
like this because there are so many factors, from getting the
lightering operation set up to getting the pumping operation
going," said Coast Guard spokesman Matthew Schofield.
"We want to make sure we're doing it in a safe and
methodical manner. We don't want to have an additional release
(of oil) and we don't want to jeopardize the safety of the
Shippers rely on the Mississippi River and other inland
waterways to haul billions of dollars of grain, coal, fertilizer
and other commodities every year. Some 55 to 65 percent of all
U.S. grain and soybean exports are transported down the
Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
As of midday on Wednesday, 34 northbound vessels hauling a
total of 532 barges and 37 southbound vessels with 524 barges
were delayed by the 16-mile closure from river mile marker 425
to 441, the Coast Guard said.
The Coast Guard has so far allowed only two small southbound
barge tows hauling a total of 15 barges to transit the area to
gauge whether shipping traffic would impact the cleanup effort.
"We're hoping we can continue to allow southbound vessels in
15- to 20-minute intervals through the afternoon, but if
anything starts to affect the safety of the personnel we're not
going to continue," Schofield said.
The river closure has not seriously impacted grain exports
at the Gulf, but a prolonged traffic jam could delay the arrival
of corn or soybeans needed to load ocean-going vessels. As a
result, exporters may incur steep demurrage penalties if their
leased vessels cannot be loaded promptly.
The oil spill was the latest in a recent string of
logistical headaches for shippers.
Low water along a busy shipping corridor between St. Louis
and Cairo, Illinois, has threatened to disrupt traffic on the
drought-drained river since December. Dredging operations and
other work aimed at keeping barges flowing have also snarled
traffic at times.
The river system's busiest lock was closed for a day last
week after a barge collided with a lock gate.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago. Editing by Andre Grenon)