Workers Try to Contain Oil from Sunken Tanker in Chicago Canal
Jan. 21A day after a barge exploded and sank in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, authorities suspended their search for a missing crew member and worked to contain the viscous petroleum byproduct that oozed from the wreckage.
Chicago police cadets walked side-by-side Thursday between the Stevenson Expressway and the canal looking for the body of Alex Oliva, 29, of Oak Lawn, who was believed to have been on the barge at the time of the blast Wednesday afternoon.
The barge was carrying more than 500,000 gallons of clarified slurry oil when a boiler on board apparently exploded, said Lt. Wayne Reed, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard, which is overseeing the investigation.
"We still don't know exactly what happened," Reed said. "Most of the evidence is on the bottom of the canal right now."
After spending the day looking for Oliva's body, authorities decided to call off their search. There is a chance his body will be recovered when the barge is raised within the next few weeks, Reed said.
Contractors hired by the barge's owner, Egan Marine Corp. of Lemont, extended floating booms around the mostly submerged tanker to contain any oil that didn't burn off after the explosion and fire near 40th Street and Cicero Avenue.
An oily, multicolored sheen was visible through the fog that rolled over the canal. But the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found no sign of the sticky goo a mile downstream from the wreckage, leading investigators to believe that most of the oil congealed in the cold water and sank back into the barge.
EPA officials said the honey-like consistency of the oil likely limited any environmental damage in a canal that never has been a pristine waterway. Although water quality in the canal has improved in recent years, the flow is mostly partially treated sewage and storm runoff.
The 26-foot-deep channel was built in the 1890s to send Chicago's sewage away from Lake Michigan and to provide a shipping link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.
Wednesday's explosion is the first time in recent memory that a portion of the canal has been indefinitely closed because of an accident, Reed said.
The Coast Guard is pressuring Egan to quickly hire a salvage crew to pull the barge out of the canal so commercial ships can resume navigation. About 15 barges a day pass through the heavily industrialized canal.
Though the canal is closed, commercial ships still can reach the lake through the Calumet-Sag Channel.
Just east of the Cicero Avenue bridge, only the tip of the 295-foot-long barge remained above the surface. It is unclear how difficult it will be to raise the barge and contain whatever oil is left inside, Reed said.
The barge was carrying slurry oil from an Exxon-Mobil refinery in Joliet to a fuel-oil plant near where the explosion occurred, Reed said. A tugboat, the Lisa E., managed to stay afloat and was moored Thursday to a breakwall near the submerged barge.
A woman who answered the telephone Thursday at Egan Marine said company officials weren't available to comment.
Dennis Egan, a veteran tugboat pilot and the company's head, said Wednesday that the barge had made the same trip twice before without any problems and the cause of the explosion has yet to be determined.
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© 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.