DES MOINES, Iowa—Officials were assessing the environmental damage Tuesday after a towboat carrying 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel and oil sank in the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa, closing the river to barge traffic.
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations don’t yet know what the towboat struck before it began sinking around 4:30 p.m. Monday. Nine crew members safely escaped.
The river cannot be opened to traffic until the cause of the accident is determined and safe navigation is ensured, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. j.g. Colin Fogerty said in a phone interview from LeClaire.
The boat is still leaking diesel fuel and oil, and the smell of diesel fuel lingers, though air monitors show it’s safe to breathe in the area, Fogerty said.
“It’s anyone’s best guess how much oil has actually leaked into the water,” he said, noting that booms appear to be containing and collecting 90 percent of what’s been spilled. “That being said, right now we’re dealing with hundreds of gallons as opposed to thousands of gallons.”
Officials are developing a plan to raise the boat, named the Stephen L. Colby, that’s stranded in about 14 feet of water and pushed up against the riverbank. The upper portion of the boat’s superstructure is still visible.
The boat was built in 1967 and is 154 feet long and 40 feet wide. It’s owned by Paducah, Ky.-based Marquette Transportation Co. A spokeswoman declined to comment.
Mississippi River barge traffic begins to slow this time of year once the bulk of the Midwest harvest is finished, but traffic continues to move, so opening the river is a priority. Three towboats with 40 barges are waiting to pass, Fogerty said, with one barge the equivalent of about 58 semitrucks worth of cargo.
“We don’t know when we’ll find out what caused it. We could find out instantly or it may be a longer, drawn-out investigation,” he said. “At this point we have to do a sonar survey to see exactly what caused this vessel to go down.”
Fogerty said the river flow at Le Claire is slow this time of year, helping to minimize the water forcing its way into the boat and pushing petroleum products out. Divers closed many of the vents and other openings Monday night to slow the leak, he said.
About 3,000 feet of absorbent booms encircle the spilled fuel and oil, and will be replaced as soon as they soak up the petroleum products, he said. A civilian salvage contractor and an oil spill removal group were sending crews for the cleanup and to begin developing a strategy for raising the vessel, Fogerty said.
No fish kill is evident but representatives of the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service were en route Tuesday to assess environmental impact.
Capt. Byron Black, the Coast Guard sector commander for the Upper Mississippi River, which includes 11 states, was on his way from St. Louis on Tuesday to assess the situation and determine when it’s safe to reopen the river channel.