February 25, 2014 9:25:44 AM
NEW ORLEANS -- The Coast Guard reopened a normally bustling stretch of the lower Mississippi River to ships and boaters Monday, two days after an oil spill closed the major inland waterway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
About 31,500 gallons of light crude oil spilled into the river after a tank barge pushed by the towboat Hannah C. Settoon collided with another towboat Saturday afternoon, officials said.
At least 30 vessels had been waiting for the river to reopen, Coast Guard Petty Officer Matthew Schofield said of the spill near Vacherie, about 50 west of New Orleans by land.
No one was hurt, all vessels were subsequently secured and there were no reports of any wildlife harmed by spilled oil, the Coast Guard said.
Schofield said ships had to go as slowly as possible in the area of the accident, where both the Hannah C. Settoon and the other towboat, the Lindsay Ann Erickson, were moored.
Although the Coast Guard said Sunday that the barge hit the Lindsay Ann Erickson, Schofield said Monday that that was still a question for investigation. He said the Lindsay Ann Erickson was not damaged.
The river, which twists and turns through southern Louisiana, had been closed earlier from Vacherie (VASH-uh-ree) to below the Port of New Orleans. The 40 miles from New Orleans toward Baton Rouge reopened Monday morning and the 25 miles from the accident site downriver in the afternoon.
During the river closure, the Coast Guard did let two cruise ships leave New Orleans for the Gulf of Mexico on schedule Sunday, Gresham said.
The American Queen sternwheeler, a river cruise ship with hundreds of passengers, was stopped partway on its trip from New Orleans to Vacherie early Sunday, said Greg Brown, executive vice president of operations for the American Queen Steamboat Co. of Memphis, Tenn.
Brown, reached in Indiana, said the American Queen was not able to stop at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, but was allowed to continue upriver around noon Sunday.
"Cruise ships are generally given priority because their 'cargo' is very valuable to all," Gresham wrote in an email. He wrote later: "And there are very few cruise ships as opposed to cargo ships."
Few details about the collision have been release by the Coast Guard, which said the Settoon boat was pushing two barges full of light crude oil and the Lindsay Ann Erickson was pushing grain barges. Even the directions they were headed and their destinations are part of the investigation, Schofield said.
Settoon attorney Alex Pucheu (pronounced PEE-shoo) said the company was dealing with the cleanup and would comment Tuesday.
Other accidents involving boats owned by Settoon Towing LLC, of Pierre Part, La., occurred in February 2012 and March 2013.
An oil barge pushed by the Shannon E. Settoon hit a liquefied natural gas pipeline in March, starting a fire that engulfed boat and barge and burned four people, one of them critically. That happened in shallow Bayou Perot, about 30 miles south of New Orleans and 20 miles west of the Mississippi River.
In 2012, fewer than 10,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Mississippi River after a barge pushed by the Clarence W. Settoon and a construction barge pushed by another tug collided about 50 miles upriver from New Orleans.
Settoon was not involved in one of the river's longest closures. A towboat owned by DRD Towing Company LLC pushed a tanker barge full of bunker fuel oil into the path of a tanker ship. The barge broke and sank, spilling 283,000 gallons of fuel and closing some 100 miles of the river, including New Orleans, for six days.
Gresham said a study after the 2008 spill estimated that closing the river is a $290 million-a-day blow to the national economy, with higher daily figures after the first several days.
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