Metro-East News

Coast Guard says environmental impact of Illinois River diesel spill under investigation

Tugboats, barge are lifted out of Illinois River

An excavation crew and members of the Coast Guard work to remove three tugboats and a dock barge from the Illinois River. The tugboats collectively carried almost 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel on them when they sunk.
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An excavation crew and members of the Coast Guard work to remove three tugboats and a dock barge from the Illinois River. The tugboats collectively carried almost 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel on them when they sunk.

One of three tugboats has been pulled from the Illinois River roughly a week after the vessels carrying almost 5,000 gallons of diesel sank.

The three tugboats, which were tied together along with a deck barge started to take on the water Friday, July 5. By Sunday, the vessels and the barge sank to the bottom of the river and the Coast Guard began to take action.

The tugboats were stations near Hardin at Illinois River mile marker 21. The Coast Guard is assessing roughly 11 miles of the river and has worked with the owners of the tugboats to contain, remove and prevent the fuel from moving downstream.

Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi River has deployed six members to continue working on removing the remaining tugboats. The first tugboat was removed from the river on Friday, with work continuing on removing the remaining vessels ongoing.

It’s believed the vessels were carrying approximately 4,850 gallons of diesel, but Upper Sector Mississippi River Marine Science Technician Monika Spies said it’s still unclear how much escaped the tugboats before divers stopped the leakage.

The Coast Guard has partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to identify the concerns in the areas, she said.

However, the full impact of the spill is yet to be determined, the agencies said.

According to the NOAA, diesel is considered to be “one of the most acutely toxic oil types.” Fish that come in direct contact with a diesel spill may be killed if the fuel is concentrated enough. However, diesel is also considered to be the most easily dispersed, as it has a low viscosity.

“The sunken vessels are surrounded by a hard boom that keeps any discharging oil or fuel within the contained area,” Spies said. “Additionally in a soft boom is placed in the contained area to absorb any discharging product.”

The sinking of the three tugboats is expected to cause “major” marine casualties and is currently under investigation.

Major marine casualties are declared when a non-public vessel results in the loss of six or more lives; the loss of mechanically propelled vessel of 100 or more gross tones; property damaged estimated a $2 million or more, or a serious threat to life, property or the environment by hazardous materials.

The spill is not being considered a hazard to people who live near it, according to the Coast Guard. Last week, an official with the Calhoun County Health Department said the office was monitoring the situation.

“While ensuring responder safety is always paramount, minimizing any potential environmental impact is a clear goal of the salvage effort,” said Capt. Scott Stoermer, commander of Sector Upper Mississippi River, last week after the oil spill. “I am encouraged by the committed effort of the vessels’ owner.”

The Illinois River feeds into the Mississippi River roughly 20 miles downriver at Grafton.

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Kavahn Mansouri covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.
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