Oil-slurping barge joins Mississippi cleanup force

Published 3:58 pm Friday, August 1, 2008

A barge that slurps gobs of oily water joined the Mississippi River cleanup fleet Thursday, near the twisted wreckage of a vessel that spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil eight days ago.

The high-volume open-sea skimmer system — or HOSS — will stay there until the wrecked barge is pulled from the river. HOSS is there because there likely will be more small spills like the one that closed the Mississippi at New Orleans for six hours Wednesday, Capt. Lincoln Stroh, Coast Guard captain of the port of New Orleans, said Thursday.

“On its last response, it picked up 75,000 gallons in 12 hours,” Petty Officer Steve Lehmann said Thursday.

The broken, 100-foot-long barge carried 419,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil when a tanker hit the middle of its three holds early July 23. The rear tank, apparently still intact but wrenched 180 degrees from the forward tank, rests on the river’s bottom.

It’s unknown how much oil still sits in the forward tank, which is braced against a massive bridge pier but is swaying in the river’s fast current.

On Wednesday, about 2,500 gallons of that oil leaked out when the forward tank settled because the river had dropped about 3 feet.

The secondary spill closed two miles of the river for six hours. The river, closed for six days after the collision, had just fully reopened.

About 12 to 14 ships, half heading in each direction, were temporarily halted by Wednesday’s closure, Stroh said.

He also said that he thought the cleanup advanced enough for the Carnival Fantasy to return to its home port Thursday. But Carnival Corp. decided to divert it to Mobile, Ala., for a second time.

The 174-foot-long HOSS is among about 200 boats sent to help clean up. More than 2,000 people were working Thursday, the Coast Guard said Wednesday. Among Thursday’s cleanup force were 159 workboats, 20 skimmers, 13 vacuum trucks, four barges and three tugs.

It will still take days of work before a salvage company can haul the ruins of the barge out of the water.

Welders began attaching seven-foot-long, custom-made metal pieces to each corner of the bow late Wednesday, Stroh said. Those bear the “pad eyes” that will hook the bow to one of two huge cranes on a barge anchored just upriver.

The crane will lift the section just enough to keep it steady in the water while divers locate the level of oil in it, said Cmdr. Brian Lincoln, who is supervising the salvage for the Coast Guard.

“We expect significant burps” when that happens, possibly Saturday, Stroh said.

Enormous slings of bundled wire will be slid under the stern section, which is on the river bottom, and hitched to the second crane to ensure that it stays in position as oil is pumped out and heavier water pumped in, Lincoln said.

Water also will replace the oil in the bow section to keep it from bobbing higher in the river.

After that, the two sections will be cut apart and hoisted onto another barge.

Nobody knows how much oil is left in the bow tank because a swift current has prevented divers from drilling into it.

Jeff Dauzat of the state Department of Environmental Quality said the Army Corps of Engineers may be able to resume dredging at the mouth of the Mississippi River as early as Friday.

Dredging was stopped Tuesday because oil was found in slurry dredged into the two hopper barges that keep the channel clear in Southwest Pass. Oil was cleaned off the top, and tests on one barge found that none of the remaining sand-water mixture was oily, Dauzat said. He said he expected to get test results later Thursday on the other barge.