A tugboat and a gas pipeline continued to burn in Louisiana on Thursday — and connected to the burning tug is a barge laden with 2,200 barrels of crude oil, potentially ready to catch fire or spill.
The tug crashed into the liquid petroleum pipeline in Bayou Perot, 30 miles south of New Orleans, on Tuesday evening in shallow water after its crew steered into an area that vessels are not supposed to enter.
Not only was the no-go area clearly marked with white stakes, but the crew apparently plowed right over the warning stakes. “The tug and barge was in the middle [of a marked pipeline area],” Coast Guard spokesman Tanner Stiehl told WWMT. “It had taken down some of the white stakes and was in the middle of that area.”
Miraculously, all of the barge’s crude has remained safely aboard so far, as emergency crews sprayed water over the barge to keep it cool and over the nearby flames. More than a dozen emergency response boats were floating near the fire on Thursday, with 40 emergency workers on hand ready to respond to a spill. A ring of floating absorbent boom was laid around the barge to help contain the oil if it leaks.
But nothing can be done to extinguish the blaze — officials are waiting for the contents of the severed liquid petroleum gas pipeline to burn themselves out. (Previous reports inaccurately stated that it was a natural gas pipeline.) The Associated Press reported on Wednesday:
The Coast Guard said pipeline owner Chevron shut off the flow of gas to the area, but what’s left in the 19-mile section of pipeline could fuel the fire until Thursday or later.
Petty Officer William Colclaugh said Chevron began a process Wednesday to inject nitrogen gas into the pipeline in hopes of extinguishing the blaze, but it was unclear how soon that might affect the fire.
An oil spill would wreak further havoc on fisheries and coastal ecosystems in an area still affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. The Coast Guard had previously said that Tuesday’s accident had triggered an oil spill. It now appears that the sheen the Coast Guard had spotted on the water surrounding the accident was not oil — it was a thick layer of ash from the blazing gas.
As emergency workers labored to protect the oil-laden barge from the flames on Thursday, questions were being asked about how the crew of the 47-foot tug Shanon E. Settoon could have drifted so far off course.
Unusually, the Coast Guard refused to say whether the tug boat crew had been tested for drugs and alcohol after the accident, as is standard practice. “We’re not releasing that information,” Stiehl told Grist. As many as four members of the tug boat’s crew were reportedly injured. The captain reportedly suffered burns to more than three-quarters of his body, which could have complicated normal toxicology testing procedures.