In this aerial photo, river traffic is seen halted along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Vacherie, La., due to a barge leaking oil in St. James Parish, La., Sunday. / AP
NEW ORLEANS — The Coast Guard reopened a normally bustling stretch of the lower Mississippi River to ships and boaters Monday, two days after an oil spill closed the major inland waterway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
About 31,500 gallons of light crude oil spilled into the river after a tank barge pushed by the towboat Hannah C. Settoon collided with another towboat Saturday afternoon, officials said.
At least 30 vessels had been waiting for the river to reopen, Coast Guard Petty Officer Matthew Schofield said of the spill near Vacherie, about 50 west of New Orleans by land.
No one was hurt, all vessels were subsequently secured and there were no reports of any wildlife harmed by spilled oil, the Coast Guard said.
Schofield said ships had to go as slowly as possible in the area of the accident, where both the Hannah C. Settoon and the other towboat, the Lindsay Ann Erickson, were moored.
Although the Coast Guard said Sunday that the barge hit the Lindsay Ann Erickson, Schofield said Monday that that was still a question for investigation. He said the Lindsay Ann Erickson was not damaged.
The river, which twists and turns through southern Louisiana, had been closed earlier from Vacherie to below the Port of New Orleans. The 40 miles from New Orleans toward Baton Rouge reopened Monday morning and the 25 miles from the accident site downriver in the afternoon.
During the river closure, the Coast Guard did let two cruise ships leave New Orleans for the Gulf of Mexico on schedule Sunday, Gresham said.
The American Queen sternwheeler, a river cruise ship with hundreds of passengers, was stopped partway on its trip from New Orleans to Vacherie early Sunday, said Greg Brown, executive vice president of operations for the American Queen Steamboat Co. of Memphis.
Brown, reached in Indiana, said the American Queen was not able to stop at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, but was allowed to continue upriver around noon Sunday.
“Cruise ships are generally given priority because their ‘cargo’ is very valuable to all,” Gresham wrote in an email. He wrote later: “And there are very few cruise ships as opposed to cargo ships.”
Few details about the collision have been release by the Coast Guard, which said the Settoon boat was pushing two barges full of light crude oil and the Lindsay Ann Erickson was pushing grain barges. Even the directions they were headed and their destinations are part of the investigation, Schofield said.
Settoon attorney Alex Pucheu said the company was dealing with the cleanup and would comment Tuesday.