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Area businesses brace as oil slicks approach New Orleans

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The towboat American Beauty pushes barges last month on the Mississippi River near Winona, Minn. Area shipping companies could face setbacks as the U.S. Coast Guard prepares the port of New Orleans for the advance of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Companies in the region that rely on river shipping are keeping an eye on New Orleans as a damaged oil rig leaks an estimated 210,000 gallons a day into the Gulf of Mexico not far from the mouth of the Mississippi. 

Barge traffic through the Port of New Orleans largely has been unaffected so far by the spill, but any restrictions or closures at the river’s gateway could affect shipping for a number of businesses in the upper Mississippi River valley.

La Crosse-based Cottonseed Inc. has four barges carrying cottonseed near Mobile, Ala., on the Gulf Coast. Two still are loading and might be slowed by the approaching oil slicks.

“All of a sudden you’ve got $1.3 million worth of cottonseed you can’t access,” said Larry Johnson, the company’s chief operating manager.

Each barge carries about 1,200 tons of seed, which generally is fed to cattle. Delays make the product more susceptible to poor weather conditions.

“There’s nothing positive about it,” Johnson said.

If the New Orleans port closed, boats could use alternate waterways to reach the Mississippi or the cargo could be transferred to trains, said Kent Pehler, CEO of Brennan Marine, a La Crosse marine contractor.

But both options are more expensive than sending barges through New Orleans, and so far there’s no reason to switch.

“As of right now, all ports are open and no ports are being restricted,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Blackwell said.

The Coast Guard is directing traffic around the spill and has two cleaning stations for boats that run through any oil sheen. The pressure-washing equipment would slow vessels as well, but so far none have needed it, Port of New Orleans spokesman Chris Bonura said.

Winds are expected to keep the spill away from New Orleans through Thursday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We’re cautiously optimistic about it,” Bonura said. “Things change, but so far it looks like we’re in the clear.”

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