WASHINGTON - Cleanup efforts were underway Friday after a barge collided with a tanker in the Mississippi River, spilling around 419,000 gallons (1.6 million liters) of fuel oil, the US Coast Guard said.New Orleans city officials promised residents that the drinking water was safe, even as a chemical odor wafted over the waterfront city and scientists set up a rescue operation for oily birds and animals.
The Coast Guard closed off a 100-mile stretch (160-kilometer) of the river, from the port of New Orleans down to the Gulf of Mexico, after the oil tanker Tintomara collided on Wednesday with an American Commercial Lines barge that was being pushed by a tug boat.
The 600-foot (183-meter) oil tanker sustained no damage but the crash split the barge nearly in two, and the thick, smelly oil poured into the river just off the banks of downtown New Orleans.
The operators of the tugboat did not have the proper license to be operating on the river, said the Coast Guard, which has launched an investigation along with National Transportation Safety Board.
The closure of the port of New Orleans was costing at least 100,000 dollars a day, the New Orleans Time-Picayune said. It was unclear how long the port would remain closed.
As of Friday morning, the barge remained stuck in the river as workers rushed to contain the spill.
"Additional crews are steadily coming in all day," Coast Guard spokesman Thomas Blue told AFP, saying that about 300 people were already involved in the cleanup.
"Anytime there is a spill there are always environmental concerns," Blue said, adding that the Coast Guard was working with US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A total of 67,000 feet (20,420 meters) of boom was spread up and down the river bed and around the barge in order to contain the oil, Blue said.
The material floats on water and helps prevent to oil from spreading into wildlife habitats and drinking water intake pipes.
Blue said that 67 barrels of oil and water mix had been cleaned up as of Friday morning, or about 2,814 gallons (10,650 liters).
Commercial Lines has submitted a salvage plan for the barge to Coast Guard for approval and work on extracting the boat was expected to start later in the day, he said.
"There were no properly licensed individuals on the (tugboat) vessel during the time that the incident occurred," the Coast Guard said in a statement on Thursday.
Government scientists set up a cleaning station for birds and other animals caught in the spill, according to local reports.
Local residents rushed to buy bottled water despite assurances by the Sewerage and Water Board that the drinking water was safe.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin urged "moderation" in consumption of tap water.
"The mayor's saying, 'Drink the water in moderation,' so does that mean I'm going to get moderately sick? Or are my guests going to get moderately sick?" cafe owner Ed Moise was quoted as saying by the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
© 2008 Agence France Presse