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Oil spill idles 200 ships in Mississippi River

About 200 ships were stacked up Friday and more were expected to join them at a bottleneck along the Mississippi River caused by a massive spill of heavy fuel oil at New Orleans.
Mississippi River Collision
A worker pauses as cleanup crews use absorbent mops to soak up fuel oil on a bank of the Mississippi River in Jesuit Bend, La., Thursday. A ship collided with an oil barge spilling 9,000 barrels of fuel oil Wednesday, forcing the closure of the river from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

About 200 ships were stacked up Friday and more were expected to join them at a bottleneck along the Mississippi River caused by a massive spill of heavy fuel oil at New Orleans.

Crews had sopped up about 9,500 gallons of oil from the fast-flowing river by early Friday, a fraction of what was stored aboard a barge that split open early Wednesday in a collision with the Liberian-flagged tanker Tintomara. The Coast Guard said it could take days to reopen the bustling U.S. waterway to commerce.

Many of the ships waited at the river's Gulf of Mexico outlet to head upriver to grain and petrochemical terminals above New Orleans, one of the world's busiest ports.

The Coast Guard said 58 vessels were stopped in the river and 97 were waiting at Southwest Pass — the narrow entrance from the Gulf of Mexico into the river. Another 37 were waiting on the Intercoastal Waterway, a shallow canal system that extends across the Gulf Coast. Forty-eight more were en route and expected to arrive over the weekend.

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.

Lost commerce
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, Louisiana.

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, Indiana, which owns the barge, said about 350 cleanup workers were deployed using 45 boats. Tens of thousands of feet of containment boom had been laid and some crews were using 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.