Workers rush to contain river oil spill

Churches provide drinking water for those impacted by 400,000 gallons of oil spilled into river near New Orleans

BY VICKI DESORMIER | NEW ORLEANS | July 24, 2008


More than 400,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Mississippi River Wednesday when a 61 foot barge carrying 9,980 barrels of the heavy "Number 6" fuel collided with a chemical tanker just north of New Orleans. The river has been closed from that location to where the river spills into the Gulf of Mexico some 98 miles to the south.

The tanker split in half on impact, spilling its full load into the water.

Environmentalists are concerned that the marshlands that filter the water from the river as it winds its way into the Gulf will be damaged. Others are worried that the damage could have a much more human toll.

In an area still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the infrastructure has been slowly rebuilt allowing water service to be just about normal to most areas. The problem is, much of the water to cities along the river comes directly from the river. The oil spill will make the water unfit for use as a source of drinking water.

But according to Kim Burgo, senior director of disaster response for Catholic Charities USA, there are many local parishes and churches of all denominations that are doing what they can to provide water to communities affected by the current water crisis.

The river is no stranger to oil spills. Damage to ships during Hurricane Katrina caused nearly seven million gallons of oil to fall into the water. Rodney Mallett, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said this was a relatively small spill, but one which could cause harm to both the environment and to the quality of life for people along the river.

"It's not the largest spill we've ever had, but it's a large one," he said.

Clean up crews have been working around the clock to set up turbidity barriers to keep the oil from spreading further than it already has. Specialized industrial vacuums are being used to suck the oil from the water in an effort to minimize the damage.

Municipalities along the river have shut their intake valves off and are relying on reserve supplies to provide water for residents. Bottled water is being shipped to the area by federal agencies.

A Coast Guard spokesman said the clean up was expected to take at least a few more days, but that after that it would be safe for parishes and cities along the river to begin withdrawing water as they had before.

According to investigators, nothing spilled into the water from the chemical tanker, which was carrying styrene and bio-fuels.

Air quality in New Orleans is being monitored but so far the amount of hydrocarbons in the air in the city are considered to be at safe levels.


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