Oil spill threatens Mississippi River

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Published: May 4,2010

Tags: oil spill

Restaurateurs, hotel owners, fishermen and beachfront property owners watched and waited for the weather and ocean currents to determine where a bulk of the oil from a calamitous Gulf of Mexico spill would finally wash ashore.

The consequences of the 200,000 gallons a day of crude spewing from a blown-out underwater well on those whose livelihoods rely on the richness of the sealife in the waters was obvious. Fishing has been shut down in federal waters from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle, leaving boats idle Monday in the middle of the prime spring season. A special shrimping season will close Tuesday evening.

Inns and restaurants that count on tourists attracted to the beautiful blue-green waters and sandy white beaches already are getting calls about the spill, which has flirted with the coastlines before receding, mostly because of the weather.

“You mentally want to push it back to the west, and then you feel guilty for doing so,” said Jan Grant, manager at the St. George Inn on St. George Island, Fla., about the path the spill might take.

Engineers from BP PLC have failed to invent a solution to halt the gusher that’s been spewing into the sea since an offshore drilling platform blew up and sank last month and killed 11 workers. BP operated the rig that was owned by Transocean Ltd.

Chemical dispersants seemed to be helping to keep oil from floating to the surface, but crews haven’t been able to activate a shutout valve underwater. And it could take another week before a 98-ton concrete-and-metal box is placed over one of the leaks to capture the oil. .

Worse, it could take three months to drill sideways into the well and plug it with mud and concrete to stop the worst U.S. oil spill since the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, leaking nearly 11 million gallons of crude.

Those nowhere near the Gulf who drink coffee, eat shrimp, like fruit or plan to buy a new set of tires, could also end up paying for the disaster. Several river boat pilots said the edge of the slick Monday was 15 to 20 miles off the Southwest Pass, where ships headed to New Orleans enter the Mississippi River.

A total shutdown of the shipping lanes is unlikely. However, there could be long delays if cargo vessels that move millions of tons of fruit, rubber, grain, steel and other commodities in and out of the nation’s interior are forced to wait to have their oil-coated hulls power-washed to avoid contaminating the Mississippi. Some cargo ships might choose to unload somewhere else in the U.S. That could drive up costs.

“Let’s say it gets real bad. It gets blocked off and they don’t let anything in. They lose time, and they are very concerned about that,” said river pilot Michael Lorino. “It’s going to be very costly if they have to unload that cargo in another port and ship it back here because it was destined for here.”

BP said Monday it would compensate people for “legitimate and objectively verifiable” claims from the explosion and spill, but President Barack Obama and others pressed the company to explain exactly what that means.

Those who packed a meeting at a Pensacola Beach church wanted to know the same thing.

Betsy Robins, 58, said she’s lost three houses to a hurricanes, a disaster Gulf Coasters dread but are more accustomed to facing. An oil spill that might foul her properties — that’s something she’s looking to the oil company to pay for. She wants BP to buy her parcels at pre-slick prices.

“I don’t want to fight another claim,” Robins said. “I’ve lost three houses to hurricanes so far. And spent 11 years fighting claims.”

For the tourism industry, the spill couldn’t come at a worse time.

“It’s the beginning of the booking season, the beginning of the summer season,” said Marie Curren, sales director for Brett/Robinson, a real estate firm in Gulf Shores, Ala. “The only thing that could make it worst now is a hurricane.”

Dana Powell expects at least some lost business at the Paradise Inn in Pensacola Beach, Fla., and could see a different type of guest altogether: Instead of families boating, parasailing and fishing, workers on cleanup crews will probably be renting her rooms.

“They won’t be having as much fun,” she said, “but they might be buying more liquor at the bar, because they’ll be so depressed.”

And what will she serve in her restaurant? Hamburgers and chicken fingers instead of crab claws.

The latest satellite image of the slick, taken Sunday night, indicates that it has shrunk since last week, but that only means some of the oil has gone underwater. The new image found oil covering about 2,000 square miles, rather than the roughly 3,400 square miles observed last Thursday, said Hans Graber of the University of Miami.

The new image also shows that sizable patches have broken away and are moving to the north and east, Graber said.

By all accounts, the disaster is certain to cost BP billions. But analysts said the company could handle it; BP is the world’s third-largest oil company and made more than $6 billion in the first three months of this year. The oil spill has drained $32 billion from BP’s stock market value.

In the Chandeleur Sound on Monday, about 40 miles northeast of Venice, La., thick, heavy oil formed long clumps that looked like raw sewage. Dying jellyfish could be seen in the water. Sea turtles have been found dead on Mississippi beaches, but necropsies on five of the 30 did not find evidence they died from the effects of oil.

The news was better from Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle, where the sheen isn’t expected to touch beaches before Thursday. Wind and sea currents have helped to keep the oil away from points farther west, said Coast Guard Capt. Steve Poulin.

Some businesses were prepared because of their experience during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Folgers Coffee Co., which ships its coffee through the Port of New Orleans, has several weeks’ worth of green coffee on hand and has made arrangements to use other ports in the event of a shutdown, spokeswoman Mary Beth Badertscher said.

“We’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons from Hurricane Katrina about supply logistics,” she said.

About 60 percent of the grain exported from the U.S. goes through the Southwest Pass. If the spill delays barge traffic going down the Mississippi, prices for corn, soybeans and wheat could rise quickly on global markets, said Greg Wagner, a commodity analyst.

Grain prices within the U.S. could actually fall if shipments are unable to leave the U.S. and the grain begins piling up at silos in the U.S. But the price decreases would probably be small and wouldn’t show up at the grocery store anytime soon, said Seth Meyer, an agricultural transportation analyst at the University of Missouri.

In Alabama, scores of shrimp boats sat at dock in Bayou La Batre, their crews unable to work.

Vietnamese immigrant Minh V. Le, who owns two trawlers, said: “I’m confused about how I’m going to survive.”

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