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Tugboat sinks in northern Alabama and releases thousands of gallons of diesel into river

Police in Florence warned the sunken tugboat released 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of diesel into the Tennessee River.

A sunken tugboat in northern Alabama released thousands of gallons of diesel fuel into the Tennessee River over the weekend, prompting evacuations of beaches and warnings to stay out of the water. 

The Florence, Alabama, police department said in a warning Sunday that 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of diesel were released into the river and fuel had begun to wash up on the beaches of McFarland Park.

“Officers are currently at McFarland getting people out of the water that are swimming,” the department said. “Please stay out of the water and off the beaches until further notice.”

Officials had received a report that the tugboat sunk Sunday morning.

It’s not clear what caused the boat to sink, George M. Grabryan, emergency management 911 director for the city of Florence and Lauderdale County, Alabama, said Monday.

He said no one was on board the tugboat at the time and no injuries or deaths have been reported in connection with the incident.

Grabryan said he expects that officials will learn sometime this week what caused the boat to sink. Officials have also been in contact with the Florence company that operates the tugboat.

In the meantime, an extensive cleanup process is ongoing by multiple agencies including the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Florence fire department and Florence Police Department, and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Marine Patrol.

Grabryan said boom, which he described as "a long section of absorbent material," has been applied "across the inference to the port" and around the tugboat.

He explained the boom will "help contain the diesel on the surface" of the water and "keep everything in a pile, hopefully" to prevent it from spreading.

It’s not clear when all the diesel may be cleaned up. 

On Monday, officials will work with the Coast Guard to develop a plan to raise the sunken vessel. 

"There’s a crane that’ll be on site today, hopefully to actually assist in raising that vessel," Grabryan said.

"We’re fortunate that we do not have these things happen that often. But they’re bringing the right people in here. So we feel really good about that," Grabryan said.