Towboat sinks, leaks fuel into Missouri River

Friday, May 30, 2008 | 9:51 p.m. CDT; updated 4:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

ST. LOUIS — A crew of seven people was safe after a towboat sank on the Missouri River on Friday, but the vessel leaked diesel into the river near West Alton in St. Charles County.

Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Whalen said the Coast Guard in St. Louis received a distress call after 2 a.m. from the towing vessel Omaha, saying it was taking on water. The crew was safely evacuated and no injuries reported.

The Missouri River was closed to traffic in the area as emergency responders worked to contain the fuel spill.

The towboat had been holding 22,000 gallons of diesel when it began sinking, said Missouri Department of Natural Resources spokesman Larry Archer. Emergency responders believed about 2,000 to 2,500 gallons of fuel leaked from the vessel. The towboat is owned by Excell Marine Corp. of Cincinnati. Those answering phones at the business said it had no comment.

On Friday afternoon, there was a concern that the partially submerged boat could go under. “If it rolls, it could lose the rest of that diesel fuel,” Archer said.

He said vacuum trucks were brought to the scene to pump fuel from out of the vessel’s hold into a tank truck. The plan was to get as much of the diesel off the towboat as possible.

Natural Resources’ emergency staff was overseeing work already under way by clean-up contractors hired by Excell.

It wasn’t clear why the vessel first began taking on water, but authorities said the captain intentionally grounded the boat along the river bank to try and lessen potential risk to the crew and environment.

Archer said the fuel loss wasn’t from a rupture in the vessel, but from vents built into the fuel tanks. He said plans were in the works to try to close off those vents to keep additional fuel from spilling out.

Absorbent materials had been placed in the river to contain the spill. The department requested a fly-over to determine how far downstream the fuel had traveled.

St. Louis Water Commissioner Curtis Skouby said a water intake structure for the Chain of Rocks drinking water plant is located about 10 miles down stream of the towboat. He said the situation is being closely monitored, but there’s no reason to think the fuel should reach the intake structure.

“As long as it’s contained, we’ll be in very good shape,” he said.

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