Ships moving despite new oil leak on Mississippi

Published 10:36 am Wednesday, July 30, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — More oil leaked from a disabled barge into the Mississippi River at New Orleans on Wednesday, but the spill did not hamper ship traffic, the Coast Guard said.

Cleanup crews with booms, vacuum trucks and skimmers converged on the spill, and water intakes south of the site were closed as a precaution, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Jaclyn Young.

The barge piece is resting against a Mississippi River bridge connecting the east and west banks of New Orleans. It moved slightly and allowed the oil to come out of the tanks on it, Young said. The barge was split in a collision with a tanker last week, spilling oil and halting ship traffic for two days.

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Authorities don’t know how much more oil leaked, but the barge originally contained 419,000 gallons, much of which spilled on July 23, Young said.

But ships continued to navigate that nation’s major waterway. Seventy vessels on Tuesday moved in and out of the Southwest Pass, an entryway from the Gulf into the river, said Capt. Lincoln Stroh, the Coast Guard’s captain of the Port of New Orleans. That represents normal traffic, he said.

By Tuesday, crews had removed about 85,000 gallons of an oil and water mixture, said Paul Book, an official with American Commercial Lines, the barge’s owner.

Charlie Henry of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said about two-thirds of the oil would be taken care of by natural forces. High water temperature, for example, causes the oil to deteriorate, making it less of a hazard, he said.

“You get to a point where you could actually do more harm to the environment by not allowing nature to take care of the rest,” Henry said.

The backlog of vessels around the Southwest Pass had just about cleared, the Coast Guard said. Stroh said vessels were traveling closer together than normal at slower speeds to reduce the wake that could hamper cleanup efforts.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard plans a hearing on the crash on Aug. 12. Investigators say the pilot of the tugboat Mel Oliver, which was towing the barge, held an apprentice mate’s license — not adequate to run the vessel. No licensed master was on board as is required for an apprentice mate to be the pilot, the Coast Guard said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Tuesday that it had indefinitely suspended dredging at the Southwest Pass. That largely continuous process during high water keeps the channel deep enough to handle ships. It was stopped after oil contamination was found in dredged material.