Coast Guard reopens Mississippi River after portion closed for two days

The U.S. Coast Guard reopened the entire stretch of the Mississippi River at 1:30 p.m. Monday with certain restrictions after a section between Baton Rouge and New Orleans had been closed in the wake of an oil spill Saturday afternoon.

A collision between the E2MS 303 tank barge and the towing vessel Lindsay Ann Erickson had prompted officials to close about 65 miles of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans after about 31,500 gallons of light crude oil spilled into the river.

The river was fully reopened Monday afternoon, but with restrictions that included reduced speed through the area and with notification to the U.S. Coast Guard on the condition of the particular vessel, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Matthew Schofield, who was providing information from the Joint Information Center.

A flight over the area Monday morning showed there was no visible oil or oil sheens seen in the river from the Gramercy bridge toward the south. There was still some oil sheen in the area of Vacherie, Schofield said. There have been no reports of oiled wildlife, he said.

Water intake valves downriver from the oil spill were surrounded by boom soon after the accident occurred, and Schofield said there have been no reports of drinking water contamination.

Paige Falgoust, communications director with St. John the Baptist Parish, said the water service hasn’t been interrupted.

“Our intake line is very deep down in the river,” she said. Oil tends to stay on the surface of the water. “The boom is just more of a precautionary measure.”

Also as a precautionary measure, she said, the water is being tested to make sure contamination isn’t making it into the line.

In St. Charles Parish, although the water intake valves on the river were initially closed, the parish reopened them Sunday and said there are “no protective actions necessary with regard to this incident,” according to information on the parish’s website.

St. James Parish government’s water system has intakes on both sides of the Mississippi River.

The spill happened downstream of the east bank intake, which is about a mile downriver of the Parish Courthouse in Convent, and did not affect that system, said Jody Chenier, parish director of operations.

But he said parish officials immediately closed the west bank intake in Vacherie after being informed about the spill by state officials at about 5 p.m. Saturday. Workers at the west bank plant could see an oil sheen on the river when they shut the intake, Chenier said.

He said the west bank facilities stopped processing water from the river until about 4 a.m. Sunday, using stored water to supply customers in the interim.

Chenier said the west bank system’s customers, who include some Ascension Parish residents and businesses served through Ascension Consolidated Utilities District No. 1, were not affected.

“We have enough storage capacity for around 24 hours,” Chenier said. “Anything beyond that would become more of an issue.”

ACUD No. 1 is a water customer of St. James Parish.

Melissa Wilkins, St. James Parish government spokeswoman, said protective booms were placed at the water intake in Vacherie and at intakes for the towns of Lutcher and Gramercy within hours of the spill.

State Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Langley said that as of late Monday morning there had been no odor complaints reported.

He said it’s likely most of the oil will either evaporate or get diluted in the heavy flow of the river in that area.

“Seven hundred and fifty barrels in that kind of flow isn’t a lot,” he said.

Other agencies responding to the oil spill include the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, which is doing air monitoring, the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, Environmental Safety and Health response crews, state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

The cause of the accident Saturday remains under investigation.