WASHINGTON — Nearly 100 miles of the Mississippi River were closed to shipping Thursday after a barge and a tanker collided early Wednesday, spilling more than 400,000 gallons of fuel oil into the heavily trafficked waterway.
Reopening the river could take days, and efforts by hundreds of workers trying to remove the oily sheen could take weeks, the Coast Guard said. It was the largest oil spill on the river since 2000.
The tugboat that was towing the barge did not have a properly licensed pilot, the U.S. Coast Guard said Thursday, and it launched an investigation.
Only about 6,900 gallons of oil had been cleaned from the river by midday Thursday, a fraction of the 419,000 gallons stored aboard the barge that split open in the collision with the Liberia-registered tanker Tintomara. The oil slick reached most of the way to the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the fragile delta ecosystem. Officials said they had so far heard of only a handful of oil-covered birds.
The barge, owned by American Commercial Lines, was being pushed by a tug called the Mel Oliver, operated by DRD Towing of Harvey, La. The barge was split nearly in half by the collision, dumping its full cargo into the river.
DRD Towing declined to comment. ACL, based in Jeffersonville, Ind., said its personnel were helping with the cleanup.
"It is a significant oil spill. They are working as quickly as possible," said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jaclyn Young.
Young said the Mel Oliver operator had an apprentice mate's license, "but that was not a sufficient qualification."
The Coast Guard was using 13 vacuum skimmers to collect the spilled oil, Young said. Almost 50,000 feet of containment booms were deployed along the river to contain the oil and prevent it from spreading into environmentally sensitive areas, and another 30,000 feet were planned.
The Tintomara, which was carrying biodiesel and styrene, was slightly damaged, but none of its contents leaked.