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Coast Guard allows restricted traffic at oil spill site

VICKSBURG — The Coast Guard is permitting restricted commercial vessel traffic on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg as crews work to remove oil from a leaking barge, a Guard spokesman said today.

Chief Petty Officer Paul Roszkowski said southbound commercial traffic will be allowed to pass through the area during daylight hours and northbound commercial traffic can move at night.

A 16-mile stretch of the river was closed Sunday after two oil barges hit a railroad bridge and one of them started leaking light crude.

The Coast Guard allowed the first barges to pass yesterday to test how the movement on the river would affect efforts to clean up the leaking oil and take it off the damaged barge.

“We understand the impact that the closure has had on industry and commerce. One of our main goals besides cleaning up the accident is getting traffic moving again. We will push to keep traffic moving as long as it is safe and doesn’t impact operations,” Roszkowski said.

At times there have been more than 70 vessels, including towboats, and hundreds of barges idled at the affected section of the river that separates Mississippi and Louisiana. The numbers fluctuate as the barges are let through and others arrive.

The leaking barge is pushed up against the Louisiana side of the river, across from Vicksburg’s Riverwalk and Lady Luck casinos.

Crews began pumping oil from the leaking barge onto another barge — a process known as lightering— yesterday.

Roszkowski said the barge shifted unexpectedly when the oil was being transferred so the operations were stopped. The barge is still leaking and the main concern was it moving in a way that would allow oil to come out faster, Roszkowski said.

“We’re reassessing our plan and will go back at it today,” Roszkowski said early Thursday.

The river is not expected to reopen fully before the transfer and cleanup is complete.

Roszkowski said the cause of the accident remains under investigation.

Nature’s Way Marine LLC of Theodore, Ala., has been named the responsible party for the oil spill, a designation that is assigned under the federal Oil Pollution Act.

The two tank barges involved in the collision were being pushed by the company’s tug Nature’s Way Endeavor. Both barges were damaged, but only one leaked.

The company has declined requests for information and referred calls to the Coast Guard.

Companies found responsible for oil spills face civil penalties tied to the amount of oil that spilled into the environment.

The Coast Guard said 7,000 gallons of crude oil were unaccounted for, but it’s not clear if it all spilled into the river or if some went into empty spaces inside the barge.

Officials said the oil coming out today was being contained.

The barge is owned by Corpus Christi, Texas-based Third Coast Towing LLC. The company has refused to comment.

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