Mississippi expected to be fully open by Tuesday

Published 6:05 pm Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Commercial traffic along a stretch of the Mississippi River shut by a massive oil spill should return to its normal pace by Tuesday, the Coast Guard said Monday.

The Coast Guard said 60 large vessels moved along the river between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans Monday — twice as many as moved Sunday.

They must move slowly so their wakes won’t wash fuel oil off the banks of the Mississippi River and from booms stretched to trap the 419,000 gallons spilled when a barge and tanker collided Wednesday, breaking the barge open.

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More ships than usual were using the stretch Monday because they had been backed up by the river’s closure, said Brett Bourgeois, executive director of the New Orleans Board of Trade. The week before the collision, about 35 to 40 tankers, freighters and other large vessels went through that stretch each day, he said.

“We’re very happy to see that the river is getting back to normal,” Bourgeois said.

River traffic was halted for two days; four ships were allowed in and out Friday, and five on Saturday.

Barge traffic on the Intracoastal Gulf Waterway, a major east-west shipping lane for fuel and other commodities, is crossing the river again, he said.

The Coast Guard captain of the port, Capt. Lincoln Stroh said that as shipping returns to normal, port personnel will resume deciding which ships move when, a job the Coast Guard has handled since the spill.

He also said there shouldn’t be any problems with a cruise ship scheduled to dock Thursday in New Orleans. The Carnival Fantasy had to dock in Mobile on Saturday, but the 2,056 passengers were bused from New Orleans with the expectation of getting their cars Thursday at the New Orleans lot.

Ships in the area at the time of the spill were scrubbed as they left to prevent contaminating other waters. But the channel was clear of oil Monday, so ships passing through from the Gulf or north of New Orleans didn’t need cleaning, Stroh said.

Stroh said crews would soon take the high-pressure hoses and steam-cleaning equipment to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of barges and tugboats docked between New Orleans and the Gulf.

Welders and divers were at work on the 100-foot American Commercial Lines barge, attaching huge pad-eyes that will be used first to secure it so divers can patch it and pump out any remaining oil, and then to haul it out of the water.

Pulling it out is still days away, Stroh said.

Charlie Henry, a scientist from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said very little oil got into the swamps and marshes, where it would have injured wildlife and been harder to clean up.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also using cannons to keep birds away from areas where most of the oil has collected.