Saturday, 29 January 2011

Spill could close part of Mississippi River for days

The U.S. Coast Guard closed 98 miles of the Mississippi River from New Orleans, Louisiana, southward after a fuel barge and a tanker collided early Wednesday, spilling more than 400,000 gallons of fuel oil.
The closure -- on what is a major shipping route between the Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico -- could last days, and the cleanup could take weeks, said Capt. Lincoln Stroh, the Coast Guard chief in New Orleans.
The collision between the Liberian-flagged chemical tanker Tintomara and the barge pushed by the tug Mel Oliver happened about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, splitting the barge nearly in half and dumping more than 419,000 gallons of oil into the river, the Coast Guard said.
The accident happened just north of the massive bridges connecting downtown New Orleans to the west bank of the Mississippi, the Coast Guard said. The tanker was undamaged.
The Coast Guard said Wednesday evening that the tug had no properly licensed crew on board at the time of the collision. No injuries were reported, and the National Transportation Safety Board said it has dispatched investigators to look into the accident.
The accident left a sheen of oil over much of the river and its banks. Booms were deployed to contain the oil, and skimmers are being used to suck it off the surface, said Petty Officer Thomas Blue, a Coast Guard spokesman.
The spill is much smaller than the ones that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the Coast Guard estimated that more than 7 million gallons of oil were dumped into the Mississippi and nearby waterways.
But Wilma Subra, a chemist who advises the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said the oil could affect wildlife and work its way up the food chain into residents, many of whom fish for subsistence.
"This is a spill that occurred in a very urban area, and it can impact a very large number of people," she said.
The oil, widely used as marine fuel, is heavier than diesel but lighter than crude, and it is likely to stick to rocks, trees and wildlife, Stroh said.
"Some will evaporate with sunlight, but there will be residuals in the waterway which need to be cleaned up," he said.
However, State Department of Environmental Quality officials said the oil is so thick that it could sink, which would complicate the cleanup, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans reported.