Spill Forces Ships to Anchor

By Holly Watt
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 25, 2008

Almost 100 miles of the Mississippi River were closed to shipping yesterday 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.

DRD Towing declined to comment. ACL, headquartered in Jeffersonville, Ind., said its personnel were helping with the cleanup.

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 other vessel involved in the collision was the Liberia-registered Tintomara, which was heading downstream carrying biodiesel and styrene. The Tintomara, bound for Rotterdam, Netherlands, was slightly damaged, but none of its contents leaked.

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