Ships begin crawling through oil-soaked river

The first of 200 ships idled by a massive oil spill began crawling down the Mississippi River on Friday after the Coast Guard reopened the waterway to traffic, but it could be days before all of the ships are cleared.

A 100-mile stretch of the river has been shut down since Wednesday, when a barge split open in a collision with the Liberian-flagged tanker Tintomara. Roughly 419,000 gallons spilled into the river, and crews have sopped up about 11,000.

The first ship to leave the mouth of the river, the Overseas New York, was bound for refineries upriver from New Orleans, said Coast Guard Capt. Lincoln Stroh. Ships will move based on economic priorities, Stroh said.

A cleaning station was set up near the mouth of the river to scrub the hulls of vessels heading into the Gulf of Mexico as they sail through the oil sheen that extended south from New Orleans. The ships are scrubbed to avoid further contamination.

Barges carrying grain south from the American heartland and a 2,000-passenger cruise ship were among vessels affected by the closure. Carnival Corp. said its Carnival Fantasy liner, due in New Orleans today, was diverted to Mobile, Ala. Passengers would be bused to New Orleans.

State authorities were optimistic environmental damage could be contained. Divers were inspecting the barge, which is wedged against a bridge. Officials said they believe little fuel is left, and say they don't think it is a danger to navigation or a hazard to the structure of the bridge.

It wasn't clear how much cleanup would cost, or what the economic impact will be.