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Diesel fuel spewing from the sunken towboat is contained by booms. (Courtesy photo by Aaron Yetter, Illinois Natural History Survey)

Diesel fuel spewing from the sunken towboat is contained by booms. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Yetter/Illinois Natural History Survey)

Towboat Sinking Averted Environmental Disaster

At 4:30 a.m. on November 25, the towboat Stephen L. Colby was motoring upriver carrying 90,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 1,000 gallons of lube oil when it struck an underwater object and began sinking in the Upper Mississippi River main channel, at LeClaire, Iowa. Fortunately, the towboat was able to reach the shoreline allowing the nine crewmembers to escape. The partially sunken vessel began spewing diesel fuel into the river and catapulted one of the greatest environmental rescue efforts ever conducted on the Upper Mississippi River.

Rescue crews from the LeClaire Fire Department, the towboat company, city, county, state and federal agencies were immediately mobilized to the accident scene. The leaking fuel turned the surface waters red and its smell saturated the air. The towboat sinking could not have come at a worse time, as tens of thousands of waterfowl were migrating through the area. Fortunately, the spill did not occur upriver, where an intricate system of backwaters are present within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

The Mississippi River was immediately closed to all boat traffic to prevent any additional accidents due to the potential for an underwater navigation hazard. The Corps of Engineers conducted sounding surveys and found no underwater obstruction and the river reopened.

The sunken boat was surrounded with floating containment and sorbent booms to capture the diesel fuel that was flowing from the crippled vessel. Divers had to feel their way in the murky waters along the vessel’s hull to find and seal ventilation shafts that were leaking fuel. Rescue crews in boats searched the swift flowing waters to locate fish or wildlife that were being impacted.

Sitting 26 miles north of the fuel spill, there were more than 50,000 waterfowl (mostly canvasbacks) on the refuge. Ice had formed in the backwaters and pushed the birds to the main channel where they were staging to migrate south. These birds follow the trailing edge of ice and 2,000 canvasbacks had already moved to within one mile of the leaking vessel. Bald eagles were also migrating, following the waterfowl, and vigilantly watching for any signs of a slow moving or crippled duck. If ducks were to get oiled and couldn't fly, eagles would immediately take advantage of the bounty feast and also be impacted.

Twice daily briefings were held to update and coordinate the rescue efforts. The U.S. Coast Guard sent in the Sector Commander from St. Louis to oversee the operation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided a contaminant specialist and several wildlife biologists to identify and assess wildlife damages. Iowa Department of Natural Resources coordinated assessment of water pollution and fishery impacts. A lightering boat trekked from St. Louis to siphon fuel from the sunken towboat.  Continued on next page.

The amount of diesel fuel that spilled into the river probably will never be determined. All fuel in the water had been removed as of December 5 with more than 130,000 gallons of fuel contaminated water siphoned and 50,000 gallons of petroleum product recovered. Incredibly, minimal environmental impacts have been identified, so far. Living Lands and Waters placed colorful streamers along the shoreline to deter wildlife use. A week after the spill, only two mallards and one Canada goose had been recovered from within the spill area and the ducks had injuries related to hunting. No fish mortality has been identified.

The 154-foot-long, 600-ton towboat was lifted out of the water. A 30-inch x 12-inch L-shaped hole was gouged into the center underside hull. The towboat sinking occurred in an area known as the Rock Island Rapids where rock formations are prevalent and dynamite had to be used to clear the original 9-foot channel. An NTSB investigation is underway to determine the cause.

We depend upon our river to provide a gateway for transportation of millions of tons of commercial products. We often take for granted the functionality, richness, and beauty of our river. It is a nationally important commercial navigation route, overlaid by a nationally significant recreation area, surrounded on both shores by national scenic byways, and is a national wildlife refuge. This near catastrophic event reminds us of the dynamic environment we live in and fragile nature of its many components.

-- Ed Britton,
Wildlife Refuge Manager
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge


Last updated: January 29, 2014