Fuel tank lodges in river bottom at Cape Girardeau

Saturday, August 23, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com An old fuel tank rested on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River out of the channel Friday, across from Red Star Access in Cape Girardeau. The tank, long unused, washed into the river during heavy rains that fell Friday morning. It originally broke free from its moorings at the old J.D. Street bulk station during high water earlier this year.

The U.S. Coast Guard broadcast warnings to barge operators and sent a crew to Cape Girardeau on Friday after an enormous storage tank broke free in a flash flood and lodged itself in the shipping channel of the Mississippi River.

The tank, owned by Robert Erlbacher, came loose from its moorings during flooding earlier this year. It had been resting in a creek bed just off the river, and Erlbacher said he had been waiting for the ground near the tank to dry out sufficiently for it to be cut into pieces for removal.

Heavy rains overnight, with as much as 4 inches indicated by radar estimates, washed the tank into the river, where it floated less than a mile before filling with water and lodging itself against the east side of the shipping channel.

The sight of the tank, which sticks about 20 feet out of the river, brought onlookers who had seen it from as far away as the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. Joseph Lyerla and Tina Tate of Wolf Lake, Ill., were crossing the bridge with their children when they saw the tank in the water.

"It looked like a silo stuck in the river," Tate said.

Reports from towboat operators indicated the tank was not obstructing shipping lanes, said Chief Petty Officer Phillip Bradberry of the Marine Safety Unit in Paducah, Ky. "Right now we are broadcasting for mariners to steer clear of this obstruction," Bradberry said. "We have information that vessels are able to pass, and we are en route to ensure that the company gets that obstruction lighted properly so at night traffic can see it."

The tank, which is about 70 years old, was used to store fuel at a depot once owned by J.D. Streett & Co., a St. Louis-based petroleum wholesaler. It has not been used for that purpose for about 15 years, said Erlbacher, owner of Missouri Dry Dock & Repair Co.

The tank is about 40 feet in diameter and 40 to 50 feet tall, Bradberry said. About 10 to 15 feet was of the tank is visible above the surface of the water. "The thing is hard aground on the bottom," Bradberry said. "They tried to move it with towboats but couldn't budge it."

Friday's events are the second time the tank has been involved in a river accident at Cape Girardeau. In mid-July, a crane being moved upstream on a mission to secure the tank struck the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, causing minor damage to the bridge.

The crane was unable to complete its mission, and Erlbacher said he thought the tank would stay put because it was wedged into the creekbed. "As it turned out, it wasn't," he said.

A plan to remove the tank from the river was being worked on late Friday afternoon, Erlbacher said. "We have got some encouraging reports that we can have some people in town early next week to get the thing moved," he said.

The method for removal will be up to the salvage crews, Erlbacher said.

The Coast Guard will make sure the lights are properly placed and continue broadcasting the warnings as long as needed, Bradberry said. But the Coast Guard will not keep a continuous presence in Cape Girardeau during the salvage operation nor will it take over attempts to remove the tank, he said. "They are responsible for it," Bradberry said. "They are taking the actions to get it removed."

The river is well below flood stage, but the rains overnight resulted in a rise of about a foot during the day Friday. With only a chance of rain over the region in coming days, the river is not likely to rise much more. But if rains come, Erlbacher said, he doesn't belive the tank will move downstream, though it is not secured to the bank with any cables.

"If the river rises, because it is a sunken vessel it will take on more water and it won't move," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611 extension 126

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