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Mississippi River oil spill only the latest in a series of fossil fuel related accidents

A crude oil spill in the United State's longest river is raising questions about water contamination. Creative Commons: NWF, 2010

A crude oil spill in the United State’s longest river is raising questions about water contamination. Creative Commons: NWF, 2010

Another accident in the United States is drawing attention once more to the hazards of transporting and storing fossil fuels.

On Saturday, a collision between a barge and a tugboat resulted in an oil spill on the Mississippi River, a major shipping thoroughfare.

In response to the spill, authorities have prohibited travel on 65 miles of the river and closed the Port of New Orleans. As a precautionary measure, water intakes from the river also have been shut off in the municipality of St. Charles Parish, which borders New Orleans to the west.

While the extent of the spill is not yet known, the light crude that did not leak out of the vessel was confirmed to have been pumped into another oil-carrying barge.

The spill, which has spread a sheen over the river’s surface, will almost certainly harm wildlife in surrounding areas and could possibly result in drinking water contamination and a costly cleanup effort.

Saturday’s accident is the latest in a series of fossil fuel related spills that have been contaminating waterways across the Eastern United States in recent weeks. In January, 10,000 gallons of an industrial chemical used in coal processing leaked into West Virginia’s Elk River. The contamination occurred just upstream of a major water intake area.

The chemical, MCHM, or methylcyclohexane methanol, can cause headaches, eye and skin irritation, and respiratory symptoms.

Last week, West Virginia’s governor asked for a federal probe into the health effects of the spill. Over 300,000 people were affected by the accident, which was declared a federal emergency by President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, earlier this month a ruptured 48-inch pipe in North Carolina sent toxic coal ash pouring into the Dan River. The leaking pipe took six days to plug and coated the bottom of the river with coal ash for at least 70 miles. Duke Energy, the utility responsible for the catastrophe, estimated that between of 30,000 and 39,000 tons of the substance escaped into the river.

Soon after the spill, a second nearby pipe was discovered to be in danger of collapsing and triggering another discharge into the river. Regulators in North Carolina have ordered Duke to take immediate action to prevent another spill.

Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal for electricity, contains a host of unsavory contents, including the metals arsenic, selenium, and cadmium. Water tests of the Dan River revealed that the spill had elevated levels of copper, aluminum, iron, and arsenic above state-established standards.

These recent events have led to a groundswell of support for regulatory transparency and tighter oversight of fossil fuel byproducts. Beyond that, though, they have also added to a large body of evidence that shows that every stage in the fossil fuel lifecycle presents opportunities for environmental catastrophe—ranging from the immediate contamination of water supplies to the deadly extreme weather events intensified by global warming.

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