The U.S. imposed its first restrictions on shipping into the Mississippi River, the most important North American waterway, as the massive BP Plc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico moves closer to the land.
Ships were ordered by the Coast Guard to slow down in three of the four lanes connecting to the river to prevent damage to vessels and injuries to workers maintaining a boomed-off safety area around the oil spill, according to a bulletin issued by the Coast Guard yesterday. Traffic through the main deepwater channel, the Southwest Pass, is not restricted.
A 500-meter (1,640-foot) security zone around the spill area is in place for the next three days, according to the Coast Guard. The oil is about three miles (4.8 kilometers) from the nearest point of land.
“It is our goal to not allow the disruption of traffic on the Mississippi River,” U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry said today at a press conference. “We cannot disrupt maritime commerce.”
The boomed-off safety area is in the vicinity of the river’s three entrances, the South Pass, the Southeast Pass and the Pass a Loutre, the bulletin showed. Vessels going through the area should move “at a slow bell to assist in maintaining a no wake zone,” according to the bulletin.
Coast Guard Captain Edward Stanton, the captain of the port, has the “sole authority” to open and close the river, Thomas Blue, a Coast Guard spokesman, said by phone today.
The Coast Guard said today the damaged BP oil well is leaking about 5,000 barrels a day, five times more than previously estimated. The growing slick is drifting toward the U.S. coastline and may reach the Mississippi delta area by tomorrow.
“We hope the slick will stay to the east of the pass and we are hopeful that they can contain it,” said Pat Gallwey, chief operating officer of the Port of New Orleans, which handles as many as 2,000 vessels a year.
Vessels going through the oil spill can further disperse and expand the slick, said Basil Karatzas, managing director at ship sale and purchase broker Compass Maritime Services in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Oil is flammable and it’s “definitely dangerous for navigating through.”
The Coast Guard has plans to stop the slick from reaching Port Fourchon, a facility about 50 miles west of the mouth of the Mississippi, said Jon Callais, chief of police at the port.
“If the oil were to come and block the entrance of the port, you cannot run ships through it,” he said in a telephone interview. In that case, “the port will essentially be shut down.”
Ships were moving normally through the Southeast Pass, said Brian McMichael, a Venice, Louisiana-based dispatcher at the Associated Branch Pilots, which guides ships at the mouth of the river.
U.S. grain exports are shipped via the Mississippi and tankers take oil to and from refineries next to the river.
The largest U.S. crude oil import facility, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, or LOOP, hasn’t been affected, said Barb Hestermann, a spokeswoman for the facility.