More restrictions placed on southbound barges|[2/3/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 3, 2005

Additional restrictions have been imposed for southbound towboats on the Mississippi River in the wake of three hitting the bridges here in eight days.

The new rules address barges that might contain petroleum or other environmentally hazardous products.

“We have continued the restriction of tows of 15 barges or more to daylight hours only,” said Lt. Todd Peterson, chief of port operations for the U.S. Coast Guard marine safety unit in Baton Rouge.

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In addition, Peterson said, if a tow has any red-flag barge – one capable of carrying petroleum, gasoline or other hazardous cargo, whether empty or full – the tows are limited to 25 standard barges. Also, any tow with a red-flag barge must have engine capacity of at least 350 hp per barge instead of the 280 hp required of other tows.

If there are no red flag barges in the tow, the maximum tow is 30 standard barges.

Southbound tows approach the U.S. 80 and Interstate 20 bridges at Vicksburg after negotiating a river bend. High, fast-moving water makes realigning more challenging.

On Jan 24, a southbound tow being pushed by an American River Transportation Co. boat hit the U.S. 80 bridge. That was followed by an American River Transportation boat hitting both bridges a week ago today.

Following those incidents the U.S. Coast Guard imposed restrictions on the size of the tows allowed to pass through a safety zone from just upstream of Vicksburg to just downstream of the bridges. At the time, the Coast Guard cited the swift currents and high water levels as the Mississippi was approaching a crest that turned out to be 44.3 feet on the local river gauge, or 1.3 feet above flood stage.

In spite of those restrictions a tow being pushed by the motor vessel Hortense B. Ingram struck first the U.S. 80 bridge and then the I-20 bridge Wednesday.

As a result of the three incidents, two grain barges were sunk and at least four were beached. Big River Shipbuilding of Vicksburg was already engaged in removing grain from two of the beached barges and had plans to try to raise one of the sunken barges.

“The industry has provided a traffic information center at Ergon Marine and Supply and all southbound vessels will have to check in with the center starting at mile 440 or Kings Point,” Peterson said.

The person manning the center will be familiar with the river at Vicksburg and will be able to pass on to boat pilots the latest information and advice on how to navigate the dangerous stretch of river, Peterson said.

He said the Coast Guard decided against having an assist vessel standing by at Delta Point because it would not only give a false sense of security but it would also be dangerous because of the speed of the current at Vicksburg.

U.S. 80 Bridge Superintendent Herman Smith said he was on the river bank when the barges from the Hortense Ingram, owned by Ingram Barge Co. of Paducah, Ky., hit the bridge pier on the Mississippi side of the main channel opening.

“I saw the whole end of one (barge) ripped off,” Smith said of the grain barge from the Ingram tow that sank.

L.W. Callaway III, Warren County Emergency Management director, said that barge went down in about 107 feet of water in the middle of the river channel about 300 yards south of the I-20 bridge.

The location has already been identified so pilots will be aware of where it is.

He said the Ingram boat was pushing a tow of 22 loaded grain and coal barges and two empty petroleum, or red flag, barges.

Smith said the engineers for the U.S. 80 bridge inspected the span Wednesday and found no damage.

Callaway said Kansas City Southern Railway traffic, which uses the old bridge, had already been halted because of track work being done in the Vicksburg area, so no additional rail tie up was needed.

Callaway praised the people at Ergon Inc. which has boats and personnel stationed at the foot of Lee Street. In addition to rushing to help towboats round up scattered barges, they provide valuable service the landbound emergency management and law enforcement agencies.

“They are our eyes and ears out there,” Callaway said, noting that Ergon often provides his office with a communications link with the towboats involved as well as with the Coast Guard.

Since the Mississippi crested here over the weekend, the river has been on a slow fall and by Wednesday had fallen to a level of 44.2 feet.

The river was at 44 feet this morning and forecasters said it should 43.3 feet by Sunday and below flood stage Sunday afternoon. The forecast for Monday is 42.9 feet.

With the river still above 41 feet on the Vicksburg gauge, small game hunting seasons in the area west of U.S. 61 will remain closed. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks issued the order closing the hunting seasons when the river rose above 43 feet.