July 25, 2008
Posted: 11:14 AM ET
On Wednesday, a 600-foot tanker and a river barge collided on a spot of the Mississippi River that I, as a Louisiana native and frequent New Orleans visitor, know well.
Tugboats hold up parts of a barge that collided with a tanker. The collision spilled 419,000 gallons of oil.
After splitting in half, the barge proceeded to spill an estimated 419,000 gallons or 9,980 barrels of oil into the mighty Mississippi. According to the Coast Guard, the pilot of the tugboat pushing the barge was not properly licensed. Crews are working to contain and clean up the spill, but the environmental damages of the accident are still unknown.
Concern is growing over the quality and supply of drinking water in parishes downstream from the accident. Many of these areas normally pump from the Mississippi River for their drinking water supply but are now trucking in bottle water to help ease concerns of shortages.
(Ironically, one of these parishes, St. Bernard Parish, was not only one of the areas ravaged the worst by Hurricane Katrina, but also the same parish soaked in more than 1 million gallons of oil after the storm’s winds dislodged an above ground storage tank at a nearby oil refinery.)
Oil spills from transportation vessels are nothing new. Most of us remember the Exxon Valdez accident off the coast of Alaska in 1989 which spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Fortunately, legislation like the 1990 Oil Pollution Act has contributed to a substantial drop in both spill incidents and volumes, but vessel spills still happen frequently. According a 2007 American Petroleum Institute study, 174 vessel spills occurred in 2005.
With river shipping halted, and drinking water and the environment threatened, many Louisianans are upset that accidents like this one still occur. But events like Wednesday’s spill are extremely rare relative to the amount of oil refined and transported in our state and nation everyday. If anything, it’s in the Louisiana oil industry’s interest to keep spills at a minimum. No one wants to see our $65 billion-a-year industry be saddled with any more bad press or regulations.
So here’s the crux of the situation. Its no secret that, while rare, pipellines can break, tanks can be blown over, and ships can collide. Is there truly anyway we can eliminate these risks or are they simply the cost of doing business?
Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology
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