NEW ORLEANS — Cleanup crews worked today to clean up a half-million gallons of crude oil that spilled from a tanker into shellfish beds and bird sanctuaries along the lower Mississippi River.
No injuries were reported after the 800-foot Westchester lost power and ran aground Tuesday night. But the Coast Guard closed a 26-mile stretch of river below New Orleans to all shipping soon after the accident happened.
The area is about 70 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and is home to abundant wildlife, including pelicans, shorebirds, crabs, spotted sea trout, and flounder, as well as more than 100,000 wintering waterfowl.
Some were covered with oil from the spill.
"We’ve observed some impact to some birds, such as white pelicans," said Roland Guidry, a state oil spill coordinator.
The stretch of the busy river was reopened to traffic Wednesday, but only one-way. Two ships were being allowed to move north toward New Orleans on Thursday, then 11 ships would be allowed, one by one, to head slowly south to the Gulf of Mexico, Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Mackowiak said.
The vessel’s single-hull cargo tank holding about 53,000 barrels of Nigerian crude oil — more than 2.2 million gallons_ lost about 13,500 barrels, said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the ship’s owner and operator. A barrel of oil contains 42 U.S. gallons.
The river bottom apparently plugged the hole and kept the rest from escaping, Miller said. She said divers were trying to assess the damage.
The 567,000-gallon spill is the largest in U.S. waters since the Exxon Valdez dumped more than 10 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in March 1989.
"Even if this doesn’t compare in size to the Exxon Valdez, it’s a significant spill," said Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.
The amount of oil vacuumed and skimmed from the surface will decide when two-way traffic can resume, Mackowiak said.
More than 30 ships and 100 workers were expected to continue work for at least the next three days in the cleanup and containment effort, officials said.
The Westchester ran aground at Port Sulphur, about 42 miles south-southeast of New Orleans and 60 miles down the winding river.
The ship lost power when part of the engine exploded. It was en route from Sabine Pass, Texas, to St. James, about 50 miles east of New Orleans.
The Westchester is registered in the Bahamas, and owned by Marine Oil Trader 3 Ltd. of Liberia. It was built in 1981 with a single, steel skin, and was scheduled to be upgraded to a double hull in 2006, Miller said.
Most modern ships have double hulls to prevent spills, and by 2015, federal law will require all tankers operating in U.S. waters to have double hulls.
The Coast Guard will investigate the accident, in part to determine whether human error or equipment failure caused the explosion and spill.
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