Mississippi River reopens after barges hit bridge

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A Mississippi River bridge where a shipping barge accident took place Sunday is difficult to navigate because it's near a bend in the river at Vicksburg, bridge superintendent Herman Smith said Monday.

The railroad bridge averages 1.5 accidents per year, Smith said. It's the older of two bridges spanning the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. The newer span carries Interstate 20 traffic between Mississippi and Louisiana.

About 30 barges broke free from a string under tow Sunday morning. Some struck the railroad bridge, and one barge carrying petroleum coke sank, according to the Coast Guard.

Petroleum coke is a byproduct of the oil refinement process. Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Gomez said the barge that sank contained more than 2,000 tons of petroleum coke.

Gomez said the barge will be salvaged, but there is no estimate of when that will happen.

After the river was re-opened to traffic at about 9:30 a.m. CDT Monday, the Coast Guard began clearing hundreds of waiting barges.

The railroad bridge in Vicksburg has been the site of several barge accidents, including one on Jan. 27, when a barge crashed into the bridge and leaked thousands of gallons of oil into the river.

The river at Vicksburg is at normal levels for this time of year, according to the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center. Service Coordination Hydrologist Jeff Graschel said that because of heavy rains in Illinois and Missouri, there may be some minor flooding in coming weeks in Tunica, just south of Memphis, Tenn; and Natchez, which is south of Vicksburg.

The cause of Sunday's accident remains unclear. Gomez said weather conditions, operator error, and river conditions could have played a part.

"There are a whole lot of variables," Gomez said. "Sometimes it's just one factor, sometimes it's all of them together."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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