Image: Mississippi River spill
Sean Gardner  /  Reuters
A chemical tanker split a fuel barge in half on the Mississippi River on Wednesday, spilling fuel oil and forcing the closure of a 58-mile stretch from New Orleans southward that could last for days, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said. The battle began Thursday to clean the 400,000 gallons of spilled oil.
updated 7/25/2008 2:57:25 PM ET 2008-07-25T18:57:25

The Coast Guard reopened the Mississippi River to limited ship traffic Friday, but port officials say it will take days to clear up to 200 ships idled by a massive oil spill near New Orleans.

A 100-mile stretch of the river has been closed since Wednesday, when a barge split open in a collision with the Liberian-flagged tanker Tintomara. Roughly 419,000 gallons spilled into the fast-flowing waterway to commerce, and crews have sopped up about 11,000 gallons — just a fraction of what the barge was carrying.

The first ship to leave the mouth of the river, the Overseas New York, is bound for refineries upriver from New Orleans, said Capt. Lincoln Stroh. The ships will move based on economic priorities, Stroh said. The Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is dotted with oil refineries and huge grain operations.

Grain barges heading to the American heartland and a 2,000-passenger cruise ship set to dock in New Orleans Friday night were among the vessels blocked by the closure.

The shutdown could cost shippers millions of dollars in lost commerce, said John Hyatt, vice president of Irwin Brown Co., a New Orleans-based freight forwarder.

State authorities were optimistic environmental damage could be contained. Divers were inspecting the barge, which is wedged against the Mississippi River bridge. Officials said they believe little fuel is left, and say they don't think it is a danger to navigation nor a hazard to the structure of the bridge.

Legal action
Meanwhile, residents sued the owners and operators of the vessels that collided, alleging in U.S. district court that they have been exposed to fumes from the fuel oil wafting off the river in the worst spill on the Mississippi since November 2000.

Grain barges heading to the American heartland and a 2,000-passenger cruise ship set to dock in New Orleans Friday night were among the vessels unable to get to the 100 miles of river that has been closed since Wednesday.

Video: Clogged Mississippi It was unclear how the bottleneck would impact the flow of refined products from the 10 petroleum plants that line the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La.

But crude oil imports did not appear to be affected. About 15 percent of U.S. oil imports come through the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port along the coast — the only U.S. port capable of handling the largest oil tankers. The complex is linked by pipeline to refineries.

John Hyatt, vice president of Irwin Brown Co., a New Orleans-based freight forwarder, said he expected the overall cost of commerce lost to quickly climb into the millions of dollars.

Paul Book, vice president of American Commercial Lines Inc. of Jeffersonville, Ind., which owns the barge, said about 350 cleanup workers deployed using 45 boats. Tens of thousands of feet of containment boom had been laid and some crews used vacuum skimmers to clean up the oil.

State authorities were optimistic environmental damage could be contained.

The spill was the largest since a tanker ran aground about 40 miles south of New Orleans, dumping more than half a million gallons of crude oil on the Mississippi. That spill closed about 26 miles of the river.

Authorities said they also were investigating why no properly licensed pilot was aboard the tugboat towing the barge that contained about 419,000 gallons of oil.

 

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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