Tanker spills xylene in Mississippi after colliding with barges

Feb 28, 2007 12:00 AM
A chemical tanker attempting to pass a towboat pushing 38 barges on the lower Mississippi River on April 25 struck one of the barges, resulting in a gash in the tanker's hull that allowed 42,000 gallons of xylene to spill into the river.

The collision occurred in darkness at 0030, as the Norwegian-flagged Bow Lion, a 549-foot-long chemical tanker, struck a barge that was part of a 990-foot-long tow being pushed by the towboat Cooperative Spirit. The collision occurred about mile marker 144 of the lower Mississippi River near Garyville, La.

Both vessels were traveling downriver, according to Lt. Cmdr. Chris Hogan, assistant chief of the investigations department at the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in New Orleans.

Bow Lion sustained a 75-foot-long gash in its starboard side that was three feet above the vessel's waterline and one foot wide at its widest point, according to the Coast Guard. Bow Lion, a 40,272-dwt chemical tanker built in 1988, was carrying a mixed cargo of chemicals and was bound for Japan and Korea, according to Ole-Johan Haahjem, spokesperson for Odfjell, the Norwegian company that owns the vessel.

The barges were carrying grain. Cooperative Spirit is owned by American River Transportation of St. Louis.

Both vessels were traveling downriver. The pilot of Bow Lion, a member of the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association, was in communication with the captain of Cooperative Spirit before the overtaking maneuver was attempted, Hogan said. Cooperative Spirit's 38 barges were arranged in rows that were eight barges wide, except for the first row, which had six barges. The tow was 280 feet wide at the eight-barge point.

Bow Lion was originally going to pass on the starboard side of Cooperative Spirit. But because of bends in the river, Bow Lion's pilot decided he would have more water and better room on Cooperative Spirit's port, Hogan said, so he passed on that side. "There was some kind of situation where the bow of the Bow Lion veered to starboard and impacted the port lead barge of the Cooperative Spirit tow," Hogan said. Barge RRS 7943 was in the second row of the tow and suffered minimal damage from the impact.

The crews of both vessels became aware of the impending collision. The captain of Cooperative Spirit attempted to veer to starboard to minimize the impact, Hogan said. Bow Lion was passing at about 14 knots at the time of the impact, "so you had this cutting action where the bow point of RRS 7943 was slicing down between No. 1 and No. 2 starboard wing tanks as the Bow Lion passed the head of the tow," Hogan said.

Drug and alcohol tests were performed on the crew after the collision. "We do not have any indication that drugs or alcohol were factors," Hogan said. Neither weather nor speed were factors either, he added.

Bow Lion's No. 1 starboard tank was empty, and the No. 2 tank contained 1,387 metric tons of xylene, of which about 10 percent spilled into the river. The crew on Bow Lion transferred xylene from the No. 2 tank to other tanks in the vessel, which prevented a greater spill, according to the Coast Guard.

Xylene is similar to paint thinner. Health hazards associated with inhalation of the chemical include headaches, dizziness, nausea and drowsiness, according to the Coast Guard. About 20 dock workers in the area were hospitalized briefly for symptoms that included throat irritation and runny eyes, Hogan said. Another 10 workers at a nearby facility reported effects from the spill, according to Jean Kelly, public information officer for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. "Nobody was seriously hurt," she said.

About three barrels of xylene were found in a river eddy nearby, and agency workers cordoned off that area with booms, she said. Two days after the spill, tests showed that the xylene in this eddy had evaporated. The rest of the spill was flushed down the Mississippi. Xylene floats on water and evaporates when exposed to the sun.

Xylene is difficult to contain, because it is colorless. "It's not like oil; you can't track where it's going," Kelly said. The only method to track the chemical is via air tests near the spill.

After the collision, Bow Lion went to Houston, where all its cargo was offloaded, Haahjem said. The vessel then went to Bender Shipbuilding & Repair in Mobile, Ala., to repair the gash. Following the repairs, Bow Lion would return to Houston, pick up its cargo and resume its voyage. Haahjem could not provide an estimate of damages.

From what his company knows about the incident so far, "we do not plan to make any legal proceedings against the pilot," Haahjem said.

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