WASHINGTON – Almost 100 miles of the Mississippi River were closed to shipping Thursday after a barge and a tanker collided early Wednesday and spilled more than 400,000 gallons of fuel oil into the heavily trafficked waterway.
The barge was split nearly in half by the collision near Gretna, La., close to downtown New Orleans, dumping its cargo into the fast-moving river. The oil slick reached most of the way to the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the fragile delta ecosystem.
The U.S. Coast Guard said the operator of a tugboat pushing the barge did not have the necessary qualifications or license, and it began an investigation.
The barge, owned by American Commercial Lines (ACL), was being pushed by the Mel Oliver, operated by DRD Towing of Harvey, La.
The barge was carrying 419,000 gallons of fuel oil, and the Coast Guard said it assumed that it had lost all its contents.
The accident occurred at 1:30 a.m. The barge had just been refilled before heading upstream toward Memphis.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jaclyn Young said that the Mississippi was likely to remain closed for several days and that cleaning up the oil would take weeks.
“It is a significant oil spill. They are working as quickly as possible,” she said.
The Coast Guard was using 13 vacuum skimmers to collect the oil, and more than 350 people were helping with the cleanup effort, Young said. Almost 50,000 feet of containment booms were deployed along the river to contain the oil and prevent it from spreading into environmentally sensitive areas, and an additional 30,000 feet were planned.
“The crew member operating the Mel Oliver was not properly licensed,” Young added. He had an apprentice’s mate’s license, “but that was not a sufficient qualification.”
The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans closed down its raw water intake at Algiers shortly after the collision. Approximately 55,000 households in Algiers, Gretna and Plaquemines Parish were asked to minimize water use, although officials said the tap water was safe to drink. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered independent testing of the city’s water.
The busy waterways of the Mississippi were shut down and 59 ships were told to anchor. Thirty-three other vessels were being held in New Orleans canals.
Jeff Dauzat, environmental scientist and incident commander for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said that the No. 6 fuel oil that leaked from the barge made for a difficult cleanup but that it was not as catastrophic for the environment as other types of oil would be.
Keren Murphy, oil and gas expert for the Sierra Club office in the area, said the spill was yet another environmental disaster for the industry.
“We’ve seen this type of oil spill happen over and over again. We saw thousands of gallons dumped in the San Francisco Bay last year, and this is a much bigger spill,” Murphy said. “It took months to try and resolve San Francisco.”
Refineries and pipelines damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 spilled about 6 million gallons of oil.