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Officials: Risk of barge disaster is low

NATCHEZ —A lot has changed since 1962, and area officials think a sunken barge carrying hazardous materials not only poses much less risk to area residents today but is even less likely to occur.

The U.S. Coast Guard is now tasked with doing an annual inspection on all barges that will be carrying oil or hazardous material, and Marine Inspector and Public Affairs Officer for Sector Lower Mississippi River Lt. Ryan Gomez said now any time a boat or barge sinks and threatens to contaminate the river with a hazardous material, a national response team that includes the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and several other agencies is immediately put on notification.

“If there is a marine casualty — that is, if a tow or barge runs aground or some barge sinks — the company is required by law to report those instances to the Coast Guard right away,” Gomez said.

“Once we get any report that a barge is taking on water or sunk, it kicks off a chain of response.”

That wasn’t the case in 1961 when a barge carrying more than a 1,000 tons of chlorine sank just south of Natchez. That barge stayed submerged for nearly two years before a presidential order began work to remove the hazards.

The wait was so long in the 1960s, in part, because finding the barge at the bottom of the Mississippi River was difficult.

With today’s technology, a Global Positioning System could easily mark the spot of a marine casualty at the time it happened.

Adams County Civil Defense Director Stan Owens said today the county has a comprehensive emergency response plan, which includes evacuation measures along all major routes.

While it was the National Guard that was preparing people to evacuate in 1962, Owens said under the county’s plan now in place, Durham School Services — the company contracted to provide school bus services the Natchez public schools — and the Natchez Transit System would take the lead on an evacuation because those entities have the busses to do it.

An official evacuation was never needed in 1962 because the tanks never leaked chlorine.

Gomez said that today, while every second of a given vessel’s journey along the river is not tracked, boats and barges hauling hazardous material — including oil — are required to have vessel response plans outlining what steps the company will take in the event of a sinking and what third-party contractors will be paid by the company to deal with the response.

“They have pre-approved plans that can be quickly implemented as soon as possible, with pre-staged materials, pre-staged people in charge who are ready to go,” Gomez said.

With that level of preparedness, the disaster that didn’t happen in 1962 is even less likely today, officials said.