New spill shuts 2-mile stretch of Mississippi
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A disabled barge spilled more oil into the Mississippi River on Wednesday, forcing authorities to close a two-mile stretch to ship traffic.
Traffic had just returned to normal Tuesday on a 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi that was closed for six days after a tanker split the barge.
The barge had been loaded with 419,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil, much of which spilled July 23. Investigators don’t know how much additional oil spilled when one part of the barge that had been leaning against a bridge support shifted early Wednesday. They also don’t know when officials will reopen the river or how many ships might be affected, said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Mike O’Berry.
He said workers were using containment booms, vacuum trucks and skimmers to clean up. Water intakes south of the site were closed as a precaution.
A new worry also surfaced for environmentalists who learned that oily muck had been dredged from the mouth of Mississippi, at the other end of the 100-mile stretch affected by the original spill.
On Tuesday, the Corps of Engineers stopped dredging Southwest Pass because it found oily muck topping the sediment that is regularly vacuumed into two hopper barges to keep the channel clear.
Although oil floats on water, the heavy bunker oil can pick up so much sediment that it falls to the bottom. Capt. Lincoln Stroh, the Coast Guard’s captain of the Port of New Orleans, and others involved in the cleanup had said they expected the swiftness of the Mississippi River to keep the globs of oil from falling.
For environmentalists, the question was how much oil is piling up at the river’s mouth, and what to do with it, said Carlton Dufrechou, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
“We don’t want to take a problem from one area and put it somewhere else,” Dufrechou said.
The corps had another big question: Whether environmental agencies will approve a safe place to dump the contaminated sediment in time to keep a major river entry from getting too shallow for big ships.
Southwest Pass is dredged regularly to keep the channel clear. The sediment was being pumped into open water near the Delta National Wildlife Reserve to rebuild wetlands — as it was in 1998, 2003 and last year, said Ed Creef, environmental resources specialist for the corps.
Wilma Subra, who advises the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the “riverkeeper” for the lower Mississippi, said she is concerned the cleanup will leave too much oil behind. Officials have said the cleanup will go on until it would do more environmental damage than leaving whatever oil remains.
That could leave a considerable amount coating material eaten by creatures that are eaten by fish, which in turn may be eaten by people, Subra said.
“There are a large number of people who subsistence fish along there, and a large number of people who make their living fishing along there,” she said. “The long-term impact could be huge.”