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Mississippi River oil spill: why Yazoo turn is treacherous

A Mississippi River barge that crashed Sunday is still leaking oil. The accident occurred at one of the two most difficult turns on the river.

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Five barges sit on the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg, Miss., Monday waiting for traffic to open. A barge carrying thousands of gallons of oil struck a railroad bridge and began leaking before dawn Sunday.

Melanie Thortis/The Vicksburg Evening Post/AP

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Oil continued to leak into the Mississippi River Tuesday from a barge containing more than 600,000 gallons of light crude, following an accident that took place early Sunday morning in Vicksburg, Miss.

The US Coast Guard says it has not yet determined how much oil escaped but that skimming operations have captured about 2,300 gallons of oily water mixture and about 7,000 gallons remain unaccounted for.

The vessel is one of two tank barges pushed downriver by a tugboat that failed to make a dangerous turn south of Vicksburg, where the Yazoo River empties into the Mississippi. The collision resulted from one barge striking a railroad bridge, damaging one of the eight onboard oil tanks.

The location of the accident represents “one of the two most difficult turns in the Mississippi River” because, when moving downstream, operators have to make a hard right, which exposes them to currents from the Yazoo, says Kavanaugh Breazeale, a spokesman for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg. Contributing to the danger are underwater pylons supporting two bridges – one for rail cars and a second for Interstate 20 – which are separated by less than a tenth of a mile.

Navigating the Mississippi is often treacherous due to changes in elevation, cross currents from intersecting waterways, and the increasing number of barges in a single tow, which could extend to as many as 40, says Marty Lipinski, director emeritus of the Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute at the University of Memphis.

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