Special Reports

Ports, cruise ships deal with oil spill

Carnival won’t sail its cruise ships at night through the Gulf of Mexico. It’s too hard to spot the oil then.

The precaution has meant only minor changes in departure times, according to a Carnival spokesman, but it highlights new and growing worries over how the maritime industry can literally navigate the Gulf oil crisis. The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for inspecting vessels heading into Gulf ports that may have come in contact with the oil spill. The Coast Guard now must inspect ships for contaminated hulls and race to clean the vessels, while regulators periodically close inlets in Pensacola to trap oil arriving with the high tide.

With one of the country’s busiest coastlines under siege by the country’s worst environmental crisis, regulators led by the U.S. Coast Guard are faced with cracking down on the economic engines contained within commercial ports from New Orleans to Florida.

“They realize there is a balance between protecting the environment and commerce,” said Glenn Wiltshire, deputy director of Port Everglades.

The leading trade group for the $35 billion cruise industry, Fort Lauderdale’s Cruise Lines International Association, said no cruise ship has altered its itinerary because of the Gulf oil crisis.

Among major cruise lines, Carnival has the most to lose in the Gulf crisis. It runs Caribbean cruises out of Mobile and New Orleans, putting its ships at risk of colliding with an oil spill that now spans the coasts of four states.

Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said the oil “is not affecting our operations” and that ship captains are successfully avoiding the oil.

Contact would require hull cleaning and could cause complications as the Coast Guard inspects vessels for oil. Carnival has two ships in the Gulf and has “slightly altered departure times so that ships are traversing these areas during the day and it has not affected arrival times in ports of call,” Gulliksen wrote in an e-mail.

While Carnival plans to install hydrocarbon sensors on ships to detect oil contamination in Gulf waters, Gulliksen said those are for scientific research the cruise line conducts as part of a long-standing agreement with the Seakeepers Society, an ecological group.

So far, ports report only minor hassles when it comes to the oil crisis. At the Port of Mobile, the Coast Guard requires cargo ships to wait at anchor off the coast for hull inspections to detect oil encounters, spokeswoman Sheri Reid said. But since ships must wait for harbor pilots there anyway, the process hasn’t meant much of a change, Reid said. “There have been very little delays, if at all,” she said.

The Port of Brownsville in Texas is the only Gulf port that is shipping to Port Manatee.

That port is located below the spill impact area and has not been threatened by the oil slicks yet, said Steve Tyndal, senior director of trade development and special projects.

“Certainly that has the potential to change and the Coast Guard has advised us that we’ll have 72 hours notice to prepare for that if it were to happen,” Tyndal said.

The Coast Guard is responsible for inspecting and decontaminating any vessels that may have touched oil before reaching Port Manatee, he said.

“They would make that determination at sea before it got to Tampa Bay,” Tyndal said. “They would boom the vessel, use a vegetable-based decontaminate and a high-pressure water solution to decontaminate the vessel and skim any oil that might be contained within the boom area.”

At the small port in Pensacola, no ships have been turned away because of oil contact, said Director Clyde Mathis. As the only Florida port that’s now a direct target of the oil crisis, Mathis has been monitoring maritime problems caused by the spill. So far, he’s been pleased with how easily the shipping industry has weathered the new navigational hazard.

“There have been some wash downs” of ships that encountered oil, he said, “but not as many as you would think.”

Vessels trying to enter Pensacola Bay have faced disruptions as clean-up workers deploy booms at the inlet in an effort to trap incoming oil. The booms aren’t used during an outgoing tide.

Wiltshire, the Port Everglades deputy director, said local officials have discussed similar precautions should oil from the Gulf creep its way around the Keys and foul ocean waters off the East Coast. But for now, even ports close to the undersea oil gusher insist cargo traffic continues at a normal pace.

At the Port of New Orleans, firefighting ships hose down any hulls with oil on them, allowing the vessels to continue toward shore during the process, spokesman Chris Bonura said. But those maneuvers have been rare, since most ships seem able to avoid the oil on open waters, he said.

“There have been two or three vessels that needed to be cleaned out of 600 or 700 since the spill began,” Bonura said.

— Herald Staff Writer Grace Gagliano contributed to this report.