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Oil spill on the Mississippi River a cautionary tale

The Associated Press reports, “A 104-kilometre stretch of the Mississippi River, including the Port of New Orleans, was closed to all water traffic Sunday as crews cleaned up oil that spilled from a barge after it ran into a towboat between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the Coast Guard said.”

“Officials don’t know how much oil spilled, but only a sheen was reported on the river following the collision, which happened Saturday afternoon near Vacherie, 75 kilometres west of New Orleans by land, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Bill Colclough. …The barge, one of two loaded with light crude and being pushed by the Hannah C. Settoon, hit the Lindsay Ann Erickson, which was pushing grain barges, Colclough said.”

The news article also notes, “Public drinking water intakes on the river were closed as a precaution in nearby St. Charles Parish, officials said. ‘The water supply in St. Charles Parish remains safe’, parish officials said in a news release Sunday afternoon.”

Reuters adds, “Oil spill response vessels and recovery equipment have been deployed in the river, the Coast Guard said. Authorities decided to close the river early Saturday evening to avoid possible contamination of passing vessels and to reduce the amount of oil spreading further down the river, according to the Coast Guard. The clean-up is expected to continue on Monday, Colclough said.”

And the International Business Times notes, “The Mississippi River and the nearby area are no strangers to boat collisions and oil spills. According to the Guardian Liberty Voice, last month, a barge carrying 600,000 gallons of crude oil crashed at ‘one of the two most difficult turns in the Mississippi River’. The barge spilled more than 10,000 gallons of oil affecting the nearby riverbed, leaving a ‘long-term impact’ in the sediment.”

More of this to come?

It’s important to recognize that the Great Lakes are already threatened by petroleum shipments, but that there are new related threats on the horizon.

The Superior Telegram has reported, “In 2010, 3.7 million tons of oil and petroleum products were shipped either to or from U.S. Great Lakes ports, and much more that moved only between Canadian ports, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A large amount of petroleum currently moves on Lake Superior through Thunder Bay, Ontario, by Great Lakes tankers. And millions of gallons of gasoline refined in Illinois are shipped out of Green Bay to move across Lake Michigan every year.”

Now U.S.-based Calumet Specialty Products Partners is committed to building a terminal on the western tip of Lake Superior near its Superior, Wisconsin refinery to ship heavy Canadian and light Bakken crude oil on the Great Lakes. This could involve 400-foot-long barges on the Great Lakes each carrying 118,000 barrels of tar sands oil.

And there is also talk about “river barge transportation” for tar sands and Bakken oil, including “a navigable waterway between Lakes Winnipeg and Superior.” The argument is that, “a future waterway connection between Lakes Superior and Winnipeg would connect into the American inland waterway system at Chicago and at Cleveland, with future prospects of moving much bulk freight between Western Canada and the Central regions of the USA (as well as Eastern Canada and Northeastern USA).”

The profit argument may be there for these nightmare scenarios. For example, Calumet has calculated that it would cost $3.50 a barrel to ship oil on the Great Lakes compared to $9.00 a barrel by rail.

And beyond oil and petroleum products, we may also see fracked wastewater being transported on US waterways.

Last December, the Associated Press reported, “The U.S. Coast Guard wants to allow barges filled with fracking wastewater to ply the nation’s rivers on their way toward disposal. …The Coast Guard proposal says barge companies want to move waste from the Marcellus region (underlying large parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and some neighboring states) ‘via inland waterways to storage or reprocessing centers and final disposal sites in Ohio, Texas, and Louisiana’. …That means large quantities of waste could be shipped on major rivers such as the Ohio; one of its main tributaries, the Monongahela; and the Mississippi.”

The Council of Canadians understands the Great Lakes and rivers as a commons and public trust that must be protected. We oppose fracking and reject the unsustainable expansion of the tar sands, their impact on Indigenous peoples, local waterways, and their part in the impending climate catastrophe we all face. We are against more pipelines that spill, and the dangerous transportation of oil by rail and water. We call for an energy future based on the principles of locally-sourced and publicly-owned renewable energy.