A worker picks up an absorbent mop used to soak up fuel oil on a bank of the Mississippi River in Jesuit Bend, Louisiana. (Photo: Alex Brandon / The Associated Press)
Long stretch of Mississippi closed for attempted oil cleanup.
A 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi River remains closed indefinitely to ship traffic this morning, as salvage workers drafted plans to remove a split fuel barge from beneath the Crescent City Connection in New Orleans and a half-dozen emergency spill contractors continued efforts to corral hundreds of thousands of gallons of thick, smelly fuel oil as it floated toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile, residents of Algiers remained skeptical of the assurances given by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Sewerage & Water Board officials that their water is safe to drink, with many choosing to drink bottled water instead.
"We don't want to give a date right now" for reopening the river, said Coast Guard Capt. Lincoln Stroh, who controls shipping on the river as captain for the Port of New Orleans. "We're still talking in terms of days."
The reopening requires both removal of the barge from its precarious position at the edge of the shipping channel and the cleanup of a significant portion of the 419,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil that was spilled during the early Wednesday collision between the 590-foot Liberian-flagged tanker Tintomara and the barge being pulled by the tugboat Mel Oliver.
Formal investigation begins
Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials began a formal investigation of the accident Thursday, with the assistance of a team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board. A Coast Guard news release confirmed that the tugboat's crew did not have the proper documents to operate on the river.
And federal and state wildlife officials were out in force along the river, helping to oversee the placement of more than 67,000 feet of boom by environmental contractors aimed at keeping oil out of wetlands and away from birds and animals.
Paul Book, vice president of operations with barge owner American Commercial Lines Inc. of Jeffersonville, Ind., said he hopes to be able to submit a salvage plan to the Coast Guard sometime today, following Thursday's assessment by divers.
"By the time they mobilize the equipment and get that on scene, I'm thinking it will probably be sometime next week when you'll actually see salvage rigs that connect to the barge itself," Book said. "It's important to industry, it's important to the public, it's important to everyone to get that vessel out of there as quickly as possible, so we will be working very hard and fast."
Coast Guard Chief Petty Office Mike O'Berry said that even when the barge is removed, reopening the river to shipping will require the removal of a significant amount of oil from the water so it no longer threatens water supply intakes and wildlife.
At midday Thursday, officials estimated that only 140 barrels of the 9,000 barrels in the barge had been picked up.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service scientists have already spotted several oiled birds and animals, and a wildlife rescue operation is being set up in Venice to remove the material from feathers and fur.
Port of New Orleans officials estimate the closure is costing the port $100,000 a day, which does not include the losses incurred by the companies using the docks or stevedores and other workers.
Stroh said at least one cruise ship scheduled to arrive in New Orleans this evening will have to switch to another port. He said he hopes the river is open by the time the next cruise ship is scheduled to arrive late next week.
Water safe, city says
City officials continued to attempt to allay Algiers residents' fears about the water Thursday, citing Sewerage & Water Board test results indicating the water was safe. Board spokesman Robert Jackson said the city resumed collecting water from the river at the Algiers treatment plant Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., after initially shutting down its intake valves because of the spill. The treated water that began entering the system Wednesday at 7 p.m. has undergone an extra cleansing step: the use of activated carbon to remove any hydrocarbons that might have gotten around booms stationed around the intake.
An independent environmental testing company, Materials Management Group, collected its first samples of treated water Thursday, with results to be ready by noon today.
Luann White, a Tulane University toxicologist who advises the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals on environmental hazards, said use of the additional charcoal-like substance means the treated water probably poses little hazard to the public.
"These are heavy hydrocarbons that can cause water to smell and taste bad, but they are not extremely toxic compounds," White said. "I would certainly not want them in there, to inhale or drink, but their toxicity is at a very low level."
She said the health department is monitoring health complaints at hospitals, but had received no reports of illness by midday Thursday. White said she expects the only illness complaints would come from workers who might experience breathing problems after being directly exposed to the fuel during cleanup operations.
Despite such assurances, Algiers residents emptied store shelves of bottled water Thursday, while some restaurants closed or cut back menus.
In announcing the city's decision to continue using the Algiers water Wednesday, Nagin warned residents to use the water in moderation.
Ed Moise, owner of Aunt Leni's Cafe and Market in Algiers Point, criticized Nagin for the vague statements, saying the water board should have produced test results demonstrating water safety or warned residents against using tap water until they can be sure.
"The mayor's saying, 'Drink the water in moderation,' so does that mean I'm going to get moderately sick?" he said. "Or are my guests going to get moderately sick?"
Jill Marshall, owner of Tout de Suite coffee shop, said that among the paltry number of customers who stopped by Thursday morning, many asked how the coffee and tea were prepared. She used tap water, but offered iced coffee to those expressing concern, as the batch was made before the oil spill.
Bottle up and go
The run on water also was occurring Thursday in St. Bernard Parish, where parish officials also announced they were resuming the use of river water after tests showed it was safe to drink.
At the Breaux Mart on Judge Perez Drive in Chalmette, store manager Tony Wertz said bottled water was the hottest item on the shelves. He estimated that he was selling 72 24-packs of bottled water every hour.
"Just about every customer this morning is buying it," he said Thursday as clerks continued to restock the supply.
One of those customers was Iris Riess of Chalmette, who filled her shopping cart with bottled water for her grandchildren. Even though the parish had said its reopened water supply from the river is safe, Riess said she wouldn't let her grandchildren drink water from the tap.
"For myself, I'm not worried," she said. "But I'll probably wait a few days before I let my grandchildren drink it."
St. Bernard Parish government reopened the parish's water intake valve in Chalmette around noon Thursday. Parish President Craig Taffaro said morning testing of water at the site of the intake valve, as well as the water that had been treated at the parish's plant, showed it was safe for consumption.
Plaquemines Parish still had a 12-hour supply of water available Thursday afternoon, but the parish's west bank could tap into a water line supplied by Jefferson Parish when that runs out, state officials said.
A state Department of Environmental Quality official also said Thursday that air quality near the spill remains within acceptable levels.
"So far our results have not shown any areas of concern," said DEQ spokesman Jeff Dauzat. "We had a couple of very, very fleeting spikes yesterday, but absolutely no reports of anything above background today."
He said odor complaints are being driven in part by a chemical added to the fuel oil to give it a distinctive smell, so people can know when it's leaking.