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Oil spill halts Mississippi River traffic

Marketplace Staff Jul 24, 2008

Oil spill halts Mississippi River traffic

Marketplace Staff Jul 24, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: Nearly 100 miles of the busiest waterway in the country’s been shut down for the past day and a half. An oil spill has forced the Coast Guard to close the Mississippi River to barge and container traffic from New Orleans all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

We’ve got Coast Guard spokesman Brendan Brewer on the line. Mr. Brewer, what’s happening down there now?

Brendan Brewer: Well, you’ve got response workers up and down the river using small boats and what they’re doing is they’re putting out a boom, which is a material that sits on the top of the water and kind of corrals oil in different spots. I arrived in town last night and when I got close to the river in downtown New Orleans, there was a real strong smell of diesel oil, so we’re monitoring that, and it’s Louisiana in the summertime, so everyone’s having to drink a lot of water, there’s a lot of sweating going on out there, especially with our folks working directly with the oil because they’ve got to wear a lot of protective equipment to keep themselves safe, so that’s one of our biggest concerns this time of the year.

Ryssdal: Describe what happened for me, would you?

Brewer: There was a collision between a 600-foot tanker and a barge in the Mississippi River right on the downtown New Orleans riverfront.

Ryssdal: And so the contents of the barge have basically emptied themselves into the river, is that right?

Brewer: That’s right, Kai. The barge was carrying approximately 420,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil — it’s used as a fuel for ships — and right now, our estimate is that about 417,000 of that oil spilled into the river.

Ryssdal: What’s happening to all these container ships that need to get back and forth along the river then?

Brewer: Well, right now one of our priorities is, of course, reopening the waterway to commercial traffic. We’ve got a few dozen ships either upriver or downriver or in one of the tributaries of the river waiting to transit and we’ve got a team of folks here that their specific job is to come up with a plan on how to start moving that traffic that’s backed up.

Ryssdal: What’s the timeline then for opening this up? I mean, how’s the plan going to get this river going again?

Brewer: Well, we don’t have a timeline yet. We’re still mapping out where all the oil is and we’ve got dozens of vessels on the water and two or three helicopters up in the air as we speak that are still going out and assessing where all the oil is and of course with it being in the Mississippi River, that’s going to change because that oil is moving down river. So once we come up with that map and we’ve got all of our strategies in place, that’s when we’ll start to get commerce moving again.

Ryssdal: You said you had no timeline. Care to hazard a guess as to when the river might open again?

Brewer: I’ve heard a few guesstimates thrown around, but I wouldn’t want to put that out right now.

Ryssdal: Chief Warrant Officer Brandon Brewer with the United States Coast Guard. We reached him down in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. Thanks a lot for your time.

Brewer: OK, no problem.

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