New Orleans spill snarls nearly 200 ships, barges
Tuesday, 29 July 2008

REUTERS, HOUSTON- More than 180 ships and barge tows were awaiting US Coast Guard permission to move along the Mississippi River after last week's oil spill in New Orleans, the worst in nearly a decade, a spokesman said on Monday.

He said 33 deep-draft outbound, 100 deep-draft inbound and 49 tugs and barge tows were awaiting cleanup of the spill or special permission to move, for a total of 182.

As of Monday, 23 vessels had been allowed to move despite the spill, and 45 others were moving to a vessel-cleaning site to await clearance to move, the spokesman said.

The river was still closed and a safety zone in force for 98 miles from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, but vessels were being allowed to move "on a case by case basis," the spokesman said.

The river is a vital link for exports of grain, oil products, coal and other commodities from the US Midwest and imports of crude oil to US refineries.

The Coast Guard has said the river will be closed for days and cleanup will take weeks. No new estimate was available Monday for when the cleanup would be complete and operations would return to normal.

The Coast Guard closed the river after a barge collided with a tanker Wednesday and spilled nearly 420,000 gallons (1,590,000 liters) of fuel oil into the river at New Orleans.

The safety zone was declared to maintain control of vessels while crews worked to clean up the mess. "It's to protect workers during the cleanup," the spokesman said.

Limiting traffic also reduces churn and spread of the spill, officials have said.

As of Friday, the Coast Guard said more than 11,000 gallons had been recovered by more than 50 vessels and 80 Coast Guard staffers scouring the area with contractors to minimize damage to wildlife, marshes and river banks.

Investigators were checking the records of the tugboat Mel Oliver, which was pushing the barge at the time of the accident. The crew was not properly licensed, officials said.

Preparations were under way to salvage the American Commercial Lines barge, which was split in half by the tanker Tintomara, owned by Whitefin Shipping Co of Gibraltar, officials said. The tanker received minimal damage.

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