Collision Closes 29 Miles of Mississippi River, Likely for Days

It might be several days before a stretch of the Mississippi River at New Orleans can reopen after a 600-foot tanker and a barge loaded with fuel oil collided Wednesday, breaking the barge in half, officials said.

No one was injured, but heavy, almost tar-like fuel oil spilled from the barge, forming a slick 12 miles long, said Lt. Cdr. Cheri Ben-Iesau, a Coast Guard spokeswoman. About 29 miles of the river was closed.

The barge "was T-boned and split in half," she said.

It held more than 419,000 gallons of fuel oil in three tanks. Investigators don't know whether all three tanks broke but "are assuming the worst-case discharge of all 9,980 barrels," said Capt. Lincoln Stroh, Coast Guard captain of the port of New Orleans.

The double-hulled tanker Tintomara was loaded with about 4.2 million gallons of biodiesel and nearly 1.3 million gallons of styrene, but did not leak, said Michael Wilson, president of ship management company Laurin Maritime (America) Inc. in Houston.

It probably will be at least several days before the river can reopen so the water can be cleaned, Stroh said. Late Wednesday morning, 25 ships were backed up, 10 heading upriver and 15 downriver, he said.

The crews of both vessels reported the accident immediately about 1:40 a.m. CDT, just upriver from the twin bridges between New Orleans' east and west banks, said Lt. Anastacia Visneski, a U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman.

American Commercial Lines Inc. of Jeffersonville, Ind., which owns the barge, brought in four oil spill cleanup companies with about 200 people and 10,000 feet of boom to keep oil away from water intakes and environmentally fragile areas, said Paul Book, vice president of operations facilities.

A smell which many people thought was diesel was noticeable in the French Quarter and parts of New Orleans' central business district.

Tugs held the two halves of the barge against the river's swift current; only a corner of each half was visible.

It had just been filled at Stone Oil Co. in Gretna, across the river from the accident site, and was on its way to Memphis, said W. Norbert Whitlock, executive vice president of American Commercial Lines.

The tanker was fully manned with a crew of 22 and was heading downriver, said Wilson, who heads the U.S. subsidiary of Laurin Maritime AB of Goteborg, Sweden. The tanker is owned by Whitefin Shipping Co. Ltd. of Gibraltar, and Laurin America's technical director was sent to the scene, he said.

Neither company nor Coast Guard officials would comment about the investigation.

"We don't know what the facts are," Whitlock said.

He said American Commercial Lines is directing the cleanup because the barge owner is responsible for its cargo.

The Liberian-flagged tanker had only minor damage, company spokesman Darrell Wilson said. He said the styrene, taken on at Carville, and some of the biodiesel taken on at St. Rose were bound for Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the rest of the biodiesel was going to Hamburg, Germany.

Styrene is used to make plastics and rubber, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Products containing styrene include insulation, fiberglass, plastic pipes, automobile parts, shoes, drinking cups and other food containers, and carpet backing, according to the registry Web site.

Ben-Iesau said the state Department of Environmental Quality made sure that all water intakes and sensitive environmental areas downriver from the spill were boomed off to keep the fuel oil out.

"Drinking water for the city is safe," Stroh said.

The state, Coast Guard and others were checking past incidents to see where spilled oil is likely to collect.