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Coast Guard lacks assets to respond to emergency on river

VICKSBURG — After a two-barge tow carrying 1.5 million gallons of oil hit the U.S. Highway 80 bridge in the early morning hours of Jan. 27, Coast Guard officials had to rely on a Vicksburg industry to respond.

“We don’t have a specific search and rescue presence here in Vicksburg,” said Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Walthour of the Coast Guard’s Vicksburg Marine Safety Detachment. “The buoys’ tender can respond, but they are not specifically a search and rescue asset.

“We perform part of the regulatory aspect of the Coast Guard. If there is a marine casualty, which is what took place, we will go out and investigate and deal with pollution concerns.”

Otherwise, the Vicksburg detachment is not geared up for emergencies.

A part of the Lower Mississippi Sector Coast Guard in Memphis, the Vicksburg detachment has one boat in service — the Kickapoo, a medium-sized cutter used for monitoring and repairing buoys along the river between Baton Rouge and Memphis.

Cutters are ill-suited for emergencies because they take longer to equip and are difficult to maneuver in confined spaces.

On Jan. 27 and in earlier emergencies, the Coast Guard called on Ergon Marine.

Danny Koestler, a vice president, said Ergon is happy to respond.

“There’s no charge for the use of our crew boat. The whole idea is you can’t shut down the main artery of transportation without everyone being affected. The quicker the problem gets resolved, the better it is for everyone.

“Keep in mind the Coast Guard, the inspectors and all the folks who work there come for a short period of time then they go to another location,” Koestler said. “We’re here all the time. We’re the first responders because we’re out here.”

The detachment also uses boats from Big River Shipbuilders, Magnolia Marine Transport, Golding Barge Line and other local companies.

Lt. J.G. Brandon McMillan with the Coast Guard in Memphis said the frequency of the bridge being damaged by barges is minimal.

“Basically, there’s not much of a need,” he said. “These kinds of incidences are rare and, when they do happen — up here in Memphis, we’re centrally located — we’re able to send boats within a few hours.”

One of the two 25-foot crew boats in Memphis was sent to Vicksburg and arrived hours after the hit. Vicksburg’s U.S. 80 bridge is one of the most frequently hit in the nation, averaging about 1.7 strikes per year, Vicksburg Bridge Superintendent Herman Smith said.

That number varies greatly, though.

During the historic flood of 2011, the bridge was hit five times. During the low-water of 2012, the bridge was hit once. When the bridge was hit Jan. 27, the river was at 33.2 feet, about 10 feet below flood level.

“When it starts getting in that 34 to 35 foot area, the current speed picks up tremendously,” Smith said.

Of the 1.5 million gallons of sweet crude on the tow that hit the bridge last month, about 7,000 gallons leaked from one of the damaged barges.

Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality assessors said the oil’s impact on wildlife and vegetation was minimal.

The damaged barge and the other one in the tow were moved to Greenville for repairs.

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