Oil tanker hits bridge, span closed

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) — A heavily traveled bridge that links Maine and New Hampshire was closed to traffic Monday after an oil tanker broke loose from a pier and struck the span, but there was no sign of a spill and no reports of injuries, officials said.

The 473-foot Harbour Feature was reported to have broken free from the State Pier in Portsmouth, N.H., and swung into the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge at about 1:30 p.m. Monday, said Coast Guard Lt. Nick Barrow. The Portuguese-flagged vessel was transporting tallow oil, he said.

“It wasn’t under power at the time,” Barrow said. “It was moored up and it somehow came unattached from the pier and floated free. But we’re unsure exactly how that transpired.”

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The span is a lift bridge that carries the U.S. Route 1 bypass over the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine. It carries more than 15,000 vehicles per day.

Following the accident, the tanker was pinned against the bridge with the rising tide of the tidal river. Tug boats were expected to move the vessel Monday evening between high and low tides when currents are minimal.

The ship was carrying tallow oil, an animal product that carries less of an environmental risk than a petroleum product in the event of a spill, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said a Coast Guard admiral told her.

The bridge was closed to traffic so transportation officials could inspect it and determine if repairs are necessary. The bridge is owned by both Maine and New Hampshire.

It will probably remain closed through Monday night and into Tuesday and possibly longer to allow crews to inspect the structure and determine what repairs are necessary, said Bill Boynton, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

“There’s definitely visible damage,” Boynton said. “How much damage isn’t clear.”

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The 73-year-old Sarah Mildred Long is one of three bridges connecting Portsmouth to Kittery, Maine. The Memorial Bridge downriver closed to vehicle traffic in 2011 to allow for a replacement bridge to be built.

The closure of the bridge left just the high-level Interstate 95 bridge open. In January, the bridge was shut down for several days after its center span got stuck during a routine test.