Mississippi River between Iowa, Illinois reopens to barge traffic after towboat sinking

DES MOINES, Iowa – Of an estimated 1,800 gallons of diesel fuel and oil that has spilled from a towboat that sank in the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa, at least 85 per cent has been removed and barge traffic has resumed on the busy waterway, the U.S. Coast Guard said Wednesday.

U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Colin Fogarty said a backlog of boats that had built up since the Stephen L. Colby struck a submerged object and sank near LeClaire on Monday afternoon has cleared. Authorities reopened the waterway late Tuesday after determining it was safe to do so, even though diesel fuel and oil was still leaking.

The Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were still trying to determine what caused the accident, as well as exactly how much of the towboat’s 100,000 gallon load has spilled into the river.

Fogarty gave an early “optimistic” estimate of 1,300 gallons, and then updated that number to 1,800 gallons. He said between 85 and 90 per cent has been contained and removed by absorbent booms. More than 3,000 feet of booms have been deployed, he said.

“We have slowed the rate a little bit,” Fogarty said of the fuel still discharging into the water, noting that officials have mended some of the damage to the vessel.

The full environmental impact of the sinking has yet to be determined; There are no reports of a fish kill or wildlife affected, but Fogarty said officials are monitoring a few hundred diving ducks just north of the accident site.

It may take months to figure out what caused the boat to sink, Fogarty said. Divers were looking at the damage to the boat, which remains partially above the water and may not be removed from the water for days or weeks. Nine crew members safely escaped the vessel.

“These investigations take a lot of time,” he said. “They involve a lot of interviews and they really involve a lot of detective work.”

Fogarty said salvage crews will be on site Friday to examine the boat and see how it’s sitting in the river. Attempts to raise the vessel will be “incredibly complex due to the ever changing environment of the Mississippi River,” he said.

The boat, built in 1967, is 154 feet long and 40 feet wide. It’s owned by Paducah, Ky.-based Marquette Transportation Co. A statement released Wednesday said the company is working with officials “to ensure that salvage operations are handled in a safe and secure manner.”