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Oil Spill Cleanup Backs Up 800 Barges Along Mississippi

Almost 800 barges are backed up in the southern portion of the Mississippi River while an oil spill is cleaned up, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Traffic has been halted at Vicksburg, Mississippi, since Jan. 27 when a towboat with two barges ran into a railroad bridge, spilling oil from a tank containing 80,000 gallons of light crude. The oil remaining in the tank is being transferred to another vessel, said Lieutenant Ryan Gomez, a Coast Guard spokesman in Memphis, Tennessee. No timeline has been set to open the river, he said today in an interview.

“It happens from time to time -- the Mississippi River will have vessels that will run aground, have collisions,” Gomez said. “As soon as that restricted area can be safely entered, we can resume traffic.”

Traffic along the nation’s busiest waterway has already been slowed by low water resulting from the worst drought since the 1930s. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken steps to keep the river open, including demolishing riverbed rock structures and dredging upstream near Thebes, Illinois.

Contractors will begin removing rock later today in the river near Grand Tower, Illinois, about 31 miles (50 kilometers) north of Thebes, the Corps said in an e-mailed statement. The channel will be closed from midnight to noon for about 10 days while work is in progress, it said.

About $2.8 billion in goods including grain, fertilizer, coal and crude oil travel along the Mississippi in a typical January, according to the American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group.

Of the idled barges, 298 were heading north, guided by 20 towboats, Gomez said. Southbound delays involved 484 barges along with 32 towboats. River traffic jams and reduced barge tonnage have created uncertainty for shippers as far south as Louisiana. Companies including AEP River Operations LLC of St. Louis and American Commercial Lines Inc. of Jeffersonville, Indiana, have idled boats because of the conditions.

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