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Cleanup effort continues at Ohio River barge spill

Mar 1, 2007 | AP

Traffic returned to normal Thursday on the Ohio River as crews began unloading a barge damaged this week when it hit a lock wall near this southern Illinois town, spilling thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical, officials said.

No evacuations or injuries resulted from the Tuesday night accident involving the barge, which spilled 10,300 gallons of the petroleum-based chemical cumene, said Lt. Wayne Chapman, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard in Paducah, Ky.

Much of that chemical remained trapped in the void between the barge's inner tank and the vessel's outer hull; the amount that actually made its way into the water should be known once crews unload the remaining chemical in the barge, Chapman said.

Air-quality readings near the site showed non-threatening readings, Chapman and Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson said.

"Unless you're right up on the barge, you're not getting any readings at all," Chapman said.

The barge, owned by Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine, was en route from the Gulf of Mexico to a port somewhere in the Midwest when it hit a guide wall of Dam 52 on the Illinois side of the river on Tuesday night, puncturing one of several storage tanks, officials said.

The six-tank vessel was carrying a total of about 960,000 gallons of cumene, and the damaged tank held roughly 164,000 gallons, he said.

The Ohio River was closed until about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday for a mile in either direction, Chapman said.

The fast-flowing river was expected to safely disperse any cumene that couldn't be contained, Chapman said.

Efforts to unload some of the chemical from the barge snagged on Wednesday night, when a towboat being used to couple the damaged barge with an empty one hit the same lock wall, damaging that vessel, Chapman said. Offloading was delayed again Thursday when severe storms rolled through the area, officials said.

Cumene, also called isopropyl benzene, is used in the manufacture of plastics, Kirby Inland Marine spokesman Mark Buese said.

Inhaling the chemical can cause headaches and dizziness and irritate the eyes, nose and throat, according to the National Institutes of Health Web site. It also can be damaging to animals directly exposed to it, according to the EPA.

As a precaution, local authorities closed Fort Massac State Park, near the spill site, until it was reopened Thursday after it was deemed safe for public use, Thompson said.

"We're continuing to monitor it and working with locals to see if there's any assistance they want," she said. "Right now, it looks like most things are more or less under control."

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