NEW ORLEANS, La. — The U.S. Coast Guard reopened a stretch of the lower Mississippi River to water traffic Monday after an oil spill from a tank barge collision forced its closure Saturday afternoon, shuttering the Port of New Orleans, the nation’s busiest port in terms of volume.
Coast Guard authorities closed about 65 miles of the river after a barge loaded with light crude collided with another barge hauling grain, releasing about 31,500 gallons of oil into the river 50 miles upriver near Vacherie, La. Both of the barges were being pushed by towboats at the time.
Officials originally reported that the oil barge struck the Lindsay Ann Erickson, which was pushing the grain barge, but a Coast Guard official told the Associated Press that fault was a still a question under investigation.
Dozens of barges, ships, and other watercraft were bottlenecked in the river in both directions after the closure. Only two cruise ships and a riverboat carrying tourists were granted passage because they were hauling people instead of cargo, a Coast Guard official told the AP.
An attorney for Settoon Towing LLC, whose towboat was pushing the oil-laden barge, said the company was dealing with the spill cleanup. The company’s website says that “safety awareness and safe practices are imperative to (its) success” and that it strives to “minimize, if not eliminate, any possibility of accidents,” but Settoon has been involved in similar incidents in recent years.
According to the AP, an oil barge pushed by the Shannon E. Settoon hit a liquefied natural gas pipeline about 30 miles south of New Orleans in March 2013, igniting a fire that “engulfed the boat and barge and burned four people, one of them critically.”
In February 2012, a barge pushed by the Charles W. Settoon and a construction barge pushed by another towboat collided in the Mississippi River about 50 miles west of New Orleans. The crash sent about 10,000 gallons of oil into the river.
No reports on the current spill’s environmental impact have been released yet. A Settoon official is expected to announce its status on the cleanup sometime on Tuesday.