JACKSON, Miss. - Water vessels were moving cautiously Thursday through a section of the Mississippi River where a barge was leaking oil as Coast Guard officials attempted to ease the economic impact of shutting down one of the nation's vital commerce routes.
Crews on Wednesday began pumping oil from the leaking barge onto another barge - a process known as lightering - but the transfer operation is being suspended at night because it's safer and easier to see if any oil is escaping during the day, said Chief Petty Officer Paul Roszkowski.
The river is not expected to reopen fully before the transfer and cleanup is complete.
"We understand the huge impact this (closure) is making on vessel traffic on the Mississippi River," Roszkowski said. But, he added, "It's critical that the vessels going through there don't affect our operations."
Although a 16-mile-long stretch of the river remained technically closed more than four days after two barges struck a railroad bridge, the Coast Guard allowed southbound barges to slowly pass on Wednesday, and then it let the first northbound vessel go by in the afternoon.
Following a test period Wednesday, officials approved a plan that allows for northbound vessels to move through the area from sunset to sunrise and southbound vessels to continue their journeys in daylight hours, Roszkowski said.
"We will space things out to minimize possible waking and will continue to monitor and control vessel traffic in the area," he said.
A Coast Guard "safety zone" extends the width of the river for 16 miles, which means it is effectively closed because barges must have permission to pass.
Petty Officer 1st Class Matt Schofield said Wednesday that at times there have been more than 70 vessels, including towboats, and hundreds of barges idled at the closed section of the river. The numbers fluctuate as the barges are let through and others arrive at the closed section.
The leaking barge has been pushed against the Louisiana shore, across from Vicksburg's Riverwalk and Lady Luck casinos, since the Sunday crash.
The Coast Guard said 7,000 gallons of crude oil were unaccounted for, but it's not clear if it all spilled into the river or if some went into empty spaces inside the barge. Schofield said Wednesday that oil is still seeping from the damaged barge. He said most of the oil was being contained, but some had escaped the containment booms Wednesday and a sheen was visible on a section of the river.
Crews have been working to contain and remove oil since the barge, owned by Corpus Christi, Texas-based Third Coast Towing LLC, struck the railroad bridge and began leaking early Sunday. The company has refused to comment.
The closure has been costly for the shipping industry.
Nature's Way Marine LLC of Theodore, Ala., has been named the responsible party for the oil spill, a designation that is assigned under the federal Oil Pollution Act. The two tank barges involved in the collision were being pushed by the company's tug Nature's Way Endeavor. Both barges were damaged, but only one leaked. The company has also declined requests for information.
Companies found responsible for oil spills face civil penalties tied to the amount of oil that spilled into the environment.
A Coast Guard spokesman said Tuesday it's too early in the investigation to know if the company could face penalties or fines.