Fuel Oil Spill Halts Some Traffic On Mississippi River

A river barge collided with an oil tanker, sending more than 400,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Mississippi River and halting some river traffic. Mark Schleifstein, of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, says the spill is costing the Port of New Orleans $100,000 per day.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. The mouth of the mighty Mississippi is closed for business today, and it's unclear when ship traffic will resume. More than 400,000 gallons of fuel oil spilled from a barge when it collided with a tanker early yesterday. About 100 miles of the river are shut down, from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Mark Schleifstein is covering the oil spill for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. And Mark, this collision happened right there in New Orleans. What does it look like? How bad is it?

Mr. MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN (New Orleans Times-Picayune): Well, it certainly is a messy sort of an accident. Fortunately, nobody was injured in this thing. You had a tanker coming downriver, and it basically sliced the barge in half, and as that happened, this huge chunk of oil got released into the river, and it's been sort of spreading downriver ever since. It's a thick, tarry kind of oil that doesn't flow that well.

BLOCK: What's going on with cleanup, or are they just trying to contain the oil spill at this point?

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: There's at least four different companies that have been responding to try to capture the oil. So far, they've only been able to capture about 300 barrels as of this morning, out of about 9,000 barrels, so that's a pretty small percentage of it, and they've been putting out booms to keep the oil away from sensitive areas.

BLOCK: And there would be a lot of concern, I'm sure, about what the environmental effects would be.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: Exactly. Fortunately, this time of year, the migratory birds are not roosting, thank heavens, but the concern is that the oil will get back into the wetlands and will stay on the grasses that are basically the food source for those kinds of birds.

BLOCK: Now, with the Mississippi River shut down, how many vessels are affected by that?

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: We've counted about 90 so far that are basically either stopped or have been stopped from coming in to the mouth of the river. It's quite a difficult situation for the Port of New Orleans. The port estimates that it's losing about $100,000 in revenue a day just to the port itself, and that doesn't include the losses to the terminal operators or the stevedores who work the port or the tugboats and other private businesses that are depending on those goods to come through the port.

BLOCK: Give us a sense of what would be on those vessels that's not getting through New Orleans because of the spill?

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: Sure. Well, to begin with, you've got all sorts of oil products, whether it be large tankers full of crude oil that are moving upriver to refineries, whether it's refined oil that is being moved around to other chemical plants, or oil that is product that's being moved to market, and then you've got all sorts of other goods.

You've got both bulk cargo and containerized cargo. Lots of container ships use the port, and then the bulk cargo that we're talking about is anything from coffee coming into this city or grain from the Midwest coming downriver.

BLOCK: And I guess still too soon to tell what the economic impact of this will be.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: Right. You know, if this does continue for a couple of days, you might see some problems with some refineries, and that will show up pretty quickly, you know, when you see the price of gasoline going up.

BLOCK: We've been talking with reporter Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune about the oil spill on the Mississippi River. Mark, thanks so much.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: Thank you.

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