MOBILE, Ala. -- Managers of some of the nation's busiest ports are studying the massive oil slick blanketing a large swath of the Gulf of Mexico that could cut off shipments of grain, coal, poultry, coffee, forest products and chemicals.
At the 4,000-acre port complex in Mobile -- the nation's ninth-busiest port -- it was business as usual yesterday with ships coming and going and cranes moving cargo, but officials behind the scenes were nervously watching weather forecasts and making contingency plans if the slick moves closer.
"I'm scared to death of the long-term implications," said Jimmy Lyons, executive director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority. "Nobody knows what this thing is going to do."
The Coast Guard will have equipment in place today between Mobile and Gulfport, Miss., to decontaminate ships passing through the sheen. If a vessel has oil on its hull, the decontamination team will spray it with water and chemical dispersant and scrub it before it enters a harbor.
Since early this week, the Port of Mobile Harbormaster has required all ships entering the harbor to take the easternmost port approach, and vessels must submit a form certifying they have not passed through an oiled area.
One ship so far has reported passing through the slick, Lyons said. Upon inspection, the Coast Guard found no residue or visible signs of oil on its hull and allowed it to enter the harbor.
Current forecasts show the slick moving away from Mobile, but that could change with a shift in the wind. If conditions get bad enough, the Coast Guard could shut down the harbor, Lyons said.
A port shutdown could cause severe financial pain.
The Port of Mobile is a nearly $8-billion-per-year operation. Between 1,200 and 1,400 ships pass through it each year with coal, iron, steel and refrigerated cargo. It is the nation's largest exporter of forest products -- lumber, plywood, woodpulp, laminate, flooring and roll-and-cut paper.
"The worst-case scenario for the ports is whether the ships stop calling in the ports of New Orleans, Mobile, Gulfport," said Capt. Michael Lorino, a pilot who guides ships through the Mississippi River's Southwest Pass in Louisiana and president of the Associated Branch Pilots Association. "If the risk is coming through [the oil slick] and getting contaminated, it may change the minds of the vessels calling in the port area."
That is not a concern to be taken lightly. The five industrial ports along the Mississippi River make up the world's busiest port complex. Five hundred million tons of cargo pass through Southwest Pass each year on some 5,000 ships, including more than three-quarters of the nation's grain exports.
"A lot of economic disaster could happen here if they shut us down for a long time," Lorino said.
'Not a good scenario'
The shipping channels of the Mississippi River are constantly shifting and tricky to navigate, so Lorino and other bar pilots board each incoming vessel at Southwest Pass at the mouth of the Mississippi River and guide it to Pilottown, La., where a crescent pilot boards and steers it to New Orleans. If the ship is calling at a port upriver from New Orleans, a Baton Rouge pilot will board in New Orleans and take it there.
The Coast Guard is setting up decontamination stations, similar to the one for Mobile, on the Mississippi River as well.
At Southwest Pass, ships with light residue from passing through oil sheen, will be rinsed. If heavier oil or tar is stuck on their hulls, they will move to a station at Pilottown or Boothville, where the ship will be scrubbed down inside an area enclosed by booms.
"That's not a good scenario," Lorino said. "But even if it happens, it's been done before."
Chris Bonura, a spokesman for the Port of New Orleans, said the latest forecasts predict the light oil sheening is getting closer to the river's main shipping channel entrance at Southwest Pass, but he does not anticipate closure of the river at this point.
"We're anticipating that if heavy oil were to block the shipping channel, it would likely require ships to be cleaned," Bonura said.
But if the worst-case scenario comes true, and thousands of ships calling at the ports of Plaquemines, St. Bernard, New Orleans, South Louisiana and Baton Rouge, are barred from entering or exiting the river, alternate arrangements will have to be made.
"If a vessel is already on the high seas, laden with inbound cargo, the operator will have to make alternative arrangements and find a port to deliver to," said Donald Allee, executive director and CEO of the Mississippi State Port Authority, which operates the Port of Gulfport. "For outbound purposes, it will simply have to wait or the owner of the cargo will decide to take the cargo by land to a different port."
A spokeswoman for the Port of Houston Authority, said the port complex there had not been affected by the spill and that the displaced vessels could redirect there if the vessel operators chose to do so.
Allee said his port was still operating normally. It expects a ship tonight. Still, precautions are being made to protect the harbor. Booms will be delivered today, and authorities are in constant communication with Coast Guard officials.
"The projection right now says there's no reason at this moment to think the Port of Gulfport will be closed, so we're focused on commerce here," Allee said. "I am worried about the things going on at the ports around me, though."