Coast Guard: Part of Mississippi River closed to traffic after tow boat collision, oil spill

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COLUMBUS, Kentucky — Part of the Mississippi River was closed as crews investigated an oil spill caused by the collision of two tow boats, the U.S. Coast Guard said Thursday.

The collision Wednesday evening near Columbus, Kentucky, damaged at least one barge carrying clarified slurry oil. The cargo tank was ruptured, causing an unknown amount of oil to spill into the river, the Coast Guard said.

The river is closed from mile markers 938 to 922, Petty Officer Lora Ratliff said.

The barge was carrying approximately 1 million gallons, but the breach was only in one area, affecting just one of its six tanks, Ratliff said. That tank holds 250,000 gallons, but it wasn't known how much spilled.

The Coast Guard said it was working with the barge owner, Inland Marine Services, and an oil spill response organization to determine the exact amount of oil that poured into the water. Inland Marine Services referred calls to its public relations person, Patrick Crowley, who did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

It wasn't known how long the river would be closed. The tow boats were moored on opposite sides of the river and a long gash was apparent in the smaller vessel. River traffic was backed up on both sides. By Thursday evening, there was no sign of a large cleanup operation.

The collision happened near Columbus, Kentucky, late Wednesday, the Coast Guard said. The cause was under investigation. The spill stretched 17 miles south to the city of Hickman.

Keleia McCloud, assistant director of the Hickman port, says both the port and ferry service were operating normally.

Hickman County official Kenny Wilson said local communities experienced no disruptions from the spill and the water supply in Columbus was not affected because it comes from wells. He said Columbus-Belmont State Park remained open.

Joe Hogancamp of Bardwell, Kentucky, was putting his 20-foot-long boat into the Mississippi River just downstream from the collision. He said he might refrain from fishing in the area affected by the oil spill.

"It might mess up some of the fishing," he said. "I'd say it's going to hurt the environment a little bit. I doubt we'll eat some fish (from the river) for a little while."

A May 19 oil pipeline rupture in California caused a spill of what has been estimated to be up to 143,000 gallons of crude, according to documents from Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline. That spill forced a popular state park to shut down for two months, and goo from the spill washed up on beaches as far as 100 miles away.

A July 2008 spill caused by a collision between a tugboat and a barge carrying oil on the Mississippi River in New Orleans sent 282,000 gallons into the water and caused the closure of the river.

Sainz reported from Memphis. AP reporter Stephen Lance Dennee also contributed.

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