The fire began the previous night when a tug pushing the barge struck a liquefied natural gas pipeline in shallow water, and smoke from it was visible 30 miles away in downtown New Orleans. 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. At the accident site, water was being sprayed on the barge from a safe distance to keep its 92,000-gallon crude oil cargo from igniting.
Earlier, Capt. Jonathan Burton stressed that the barge remained intact and none of the oil appeared to be leaking. However, as a precaution, protective boom was deployed in the area around the accident site and in nearby environmentally sensitive areas. Oil skimmers were also dispatched.
"We're not waiting for something to happen," Burton told reporters. Preparations included consultations with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on where currents might take the oil if it were released.
Four people were injured in the accident on Bayou Perot, a marshy area where Lafourche and Jefferson parishes meet. The Coast Guard said three were treated and released but one was taken to a Baton Rouge burn unit and was in critical condition. Their identities were not released.
Although the oil barge was not believed to be leaking, Coast Guard officials said a spotty sheen of oily material was visible along a mile-long stretch near the site. Burton said that may be diesel from the tug or lubricants that leaked from the accident site.
The area is thinly populated and no evacuations were ordered.
Burton said investigators hadn't determined why the tug, owned by Settoon Towing, hit the pipeline. The Coast Guard estimated water at the accident site to be two or three feet deep.
Asked specifically if the tug, the Shanon E. Settoon, was outside navigation channels, Burton would only say the accident was under investigation.
Environmental company ES&H of Houma was hired by Settoon Towing for cleanup. "The barge appears to be intact and the integrity is OK," Patrick Bergeron of ES&H said at a news conference. "But we are preparing with pro-active booming."
The area is along the northern reaches of Barataria Bay, which was heavily affected by oil from the BP spill in 2010. It is mostly small communities where people often make their living from the sea, either working in the oil and gas industry or as fishermen.
The 92,000 gallons the Coast Guard says was being carried by the barge is a fraction of the millions of gallons that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 spill.
The region where the fire was burning is crisscrossed by pipelines. Wellheads are a common sight in the shallow waters of the bayou and bay shoreline.
Bayou Perot was the scene of an explosion and fire on a specialized oil rig in December 2010 in which three men were injured. The explosion happened while the men were welding and there was no pollution, the Coast Guard reported.
Another Settoon tug was involved in a February 2012 collision on the Mississippi River that resulted in an estimated 10,000 gallons of oil spilling into the river. The Coast Guard said the spill resulted from a collision between a barge pushed by the Clarence W. Settoon and a construction barge pushed by another tug about 50 miles upriver from New Orleans.
KEVIN McGILL,Associated Press