JACKSON, Miss. – The Coast Guard says crews hope to start work Wednesday to remove thousands of gallons of oil from a damaged barge on the Mississippi River, but it's not clear how long that could take or when the river will reopen.
A 16-mile stretch of river was closed near Vicksburg for a fourth day Wednesday after two barges collided with a railroad bridge and one began leaking oil.
Tugs have held the ruptured barge to the bank on the Louisiana side of the river, across from Vicksburg's Riverwalk and Lady Luck casinos, since Sunday's crash.
The plan is to pump the oil to an empty barge that was on site Wednesday morning, said Petty Officer 1st Class Matt Schofield.
"We'd like to be optimistic and start doing it as soon as we can, but there are a lot of things that could change between now and then," Schofield said.
Severe weather that swept through the area overnight Tuesday shut down cleanup operations for a time, but crews were working again Wednesday morning, Schofield said.
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 seeped into empty spaces inside the barge. Schofield said Wednesday that oil is still seeping from the damaged barge, but crews were "able to recover it faster than it's coming out."
Crews have been working to contain and remove oil since the barge, owned by Corpus Christi, Texas-based Third Coast Towing LLC, struck a railroad bridge and began leaking early Sunday. The company has refused to comment.
The Coast Guard said the environmental impact has been minimal because a boom is containing the leak around the barge and the leak is slow. Crews are using a skimmer to collect the oil.
The closure has been costly for the shipping industry.
Schofield said 55 vessels, including towboats, and 834 barges were idled at the closed 16-mile stretch of the river, one of the nation's vital commerce routes.
About 168.4 million tons of cargo a year move along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, La., and the mouth of the Ohio River, carried by nearly 22,300 cargo ships and 162,700 barges, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. About 3.6 million tons of cargo are handled annually by the port of Vicksburg.
When low water threatened to close the river earlier this month, the tow industry trade group American Waterways Operators estimated that 7.2 million tons of commodities worth $2.8 billion might be sidelined over the last three weeks of January.
Salt destined for Northern roads is moving upriver in January, said spokeswoman Ann McCulloch. "We're still moving corn, soybeans and grain, but also coal and petroleum ... stone, sand and gravel," she said Tuesday.
Barges carry 20 percent of the nation's coal and more than 60 percent of its grain exports, according to the group.
Ron Zornes, director of corporate operations for Canal Barge Co. of New Orleans, said each idled towboat could cost a company anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 a day. The low end would be for a single boat with a couple of barges and the high end for one in "a system of towboats that acts sort of like a bus system."
"So if one bus is stopped, it gums up the whole system," he said.
On the other hand, vessel traffic tends to be lower in January than during peak harvest season, when grain from the U.S. heartland is shipped south to be loaded onto massive ships near New Orleans.
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 barges were being pushed by the company's tug Nature's Way Endeavor. The company has declined requests for information from The Associated Press.
Companies found responsible for oil spills face civil penalties tied to the amount of oil that spilled into the environment.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally said Tuesday it's too early in the investigation to know if the company could face penalties or fines.
The Nature's Way Endeavor was pushing two tank barges when the collision with the bridge happened about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, authorities said. Both barges were damaged, but only one leaked. Authorities declared the bridge safe after an inspection.
The leaking tank, which was pierced above the water line, was carrying 80,000 gallons of light crude, authorities said. The Coast Guard hasn't said how much oil was in the other tanks on the barge.