Alabama’s port at Mobile seeks to keep oil at bay

* Boom fence at entry to be completed by Monday

* Double-gate system to allow access for ships

* Mobile Bay is ninth-largest U.S. port

By Steve Gorman

MOBILE, Ala., May 9 (BestGrowthStock) – Crews labored through the
weekend to cordon off the entrance to Mobile Bay with a
containment boom fence in a novel bid to safeguard America’s
ninth-largest seaport from the oil spewing into the Gulf of
Mexico.

The barrier, anchored to newly driven pilings and designed
with a double gate in the middle to enable ships to pass
without letting oil into the bay, was expected to be completed
by Sunday evening or early Monday, said Judith Adams of the
Alabama State Port Authority.

“I understand that the seas and the winds are going to be
able to facilitate that schedule and they do not anticipate any
problems associated with the weather,” she said on Saturday.

The plan was approved by the Alabama governor on Wednesday,
and the following day, the U.S. Coast Guard and BP-contracted
crews finished the first stage of the project, driving pilings
along the route of the barrier, a distance of about 3 miles (5
km).

On Saturday, BP-contracted crews began securing a chain of
large booms to the posts. When completed, the containment fence
will run roughly between the two fingers of land that already
enclose most of the bay — Dauphin Island to the west and the
peninsula of Mobile Point to the east.

Access to the 500-foot-(152-metre) wide shipping channel in
the middle will be gained through a tugboat-driven double gate
through which ships entering the bay from the Gulf will pass.
Vessels will stop between the barriers to be checked for oil
contamination, cleaned if necessary, and then allowed through.

“The gate system in theory is to ensure that oil doesn’t
creep into the channel and move into the bay on currents and
tidal conditions and we still allow commerce to keep flowing,”
Adams said.

The bay shares its waters with beach resorts, oyster beds,
commercial and recreational fishing and wildlife reserves.

Mobile Bay is one of several major U.S. ports threatened by
oil gushing from a ruptured wellhead on the Gulf floor off
Louisiana since a drilling rig contracted by BP (BP.L: ) exploded
there on April 20 in a huge blowout, killing 11 crewmen.

Other harbors in harm’s way are the Port of South
Louisiana, New Orleans and Gulfport, Mississippi.

SECOND BOOM SYSTEM

A separate boom system was being set up in the only other
navigable passage to Mobile Bay — between the southwestern tip
of the Alabama mainland and the north end of Dauphin Island,
roughly parallel to the bridge connecting the two.

Still, officials acknowledge that booming off entry points
to the bay is not a perfect solution. Booms can be effective in
containing slicks in calm weather but are less reliable in
rough seas, when oil can lap over and under the barriers with
waves and wind.

Tar balls and tar beads washed ashore on Dauphin Island on
Saturday but it had yet to be confirmed they originated from
the oil spill. Government forecasts called for the main body of
the mushrooming slick in the gulf to remain away from the coast
of Alabama through at least Monday.

Mobile Bay is the ninth largest port in the United States
by volume, with 69 million tons of cargo moving in and out of
its terminals in 2008, the latest year for such figures.

The port handles about equal volumes of imports and exports
and also is home to a pleasure cruise terminal.

Mobile ranks as the nation’s largest port for general
forest products, inbound and outbound, and the largest terminal
for coal imports. Other commodities passing through include
petroleum, iron, steel, poultry and seafood products and
building materials.

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(Editing by Peter Cooney)

Alabama’s port at Mobile seeks to keep oil at bay