Oil Spill Cleanup Continues In Galveston Bay, While Houston Ship Channel Partially Reopens | KERA News

Oil Spill Cleanup Continues In Galveston Bay, While Houston Ship Channel Partially Reopens

Mar 24, 2014

Update, 1:50 p.m. Tuesday: The Coast Guard partially reopened one of the nation's busiest seaports to ship traffic Tuesday, three days after a collision between a barge and a ship spilled up to 170,000 gallons of tar-like oil into the waters south of Houston.

Authorities said ships were being allowed through the Houston Ship Channel after their assessment teams deemed it was clear enough for passage. More than 100 ships on both sides of the channel were awaiting the reopening.

"The cleanup operations progress is to the point that there is minimal danger of contamination to the commercial maritime traffic and allowing limited transit during daylight hours," said Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer. "This is an important accomplishment for every person working this response."

NPR has more.

Update, 9:46 p.m. Monday: As workers in bright yellow suits picked quarter-sized "tar balls" out of the sand along Galveston Bay on Monday, strong incoming tides kept washing more ashore.

Elsewhere, crews lined up miles of oil booms to keep oil away from the shoreline and bird habitats, two days after a collision in the Houston Ship Channel dumped as many as 170,000 gallons of oil from a barge into the water along the Gulf Coast and shut down one of the nation's busiest seaports.

With cleanup well underway, the Coast Guard said it hoped to have the channel open to barge traffic as quickly as possible but that more tests were needed to confirm the water and the vessels traveling through the channel were free of oil.

The closure stranded some 80 vessels on both sides of the channel. Traffic through the channel includes ships serving refineries key to American oil production.

Officials believe most of the oil that spilled Saturday is drifting out of the Houston Ship Channel into the Gulf of Mexico, which should limit the impact on bird habitats around Galveston Bay as well as beaches and fisheries important to tourists.

"This spill - I think if we keep our fingers crossed - is not going to have the negative impact that it could have had," said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the lead state agency on the response to the spill.

The best-case scenario is for most of the slick to remain in the Gulf for several days or longer and congeal into small "tar balls" that wash up further south on the Texas coast, where they could be picked up and removed, Patterson said. Crews from the General Land Office are monitoring water currents and the movement of the oil, he said.

Parts of Galveston Island were closed to the public as the cleanup entered its third day. Crews have laid booms around environmentally sensitive areas.

Some black, tar-like globs, along with a dark line of a sticky, oily substance, were seen along the shoreline of the Texas City dike, a 5-mile jetty that juts into Galveston Bay across from a tip of Galveston Island.

Jim Guidry, executive vice president of Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine Corp., which owned the barge, has said the company - the nation's largest operator of inland barges - would pay for any cleanup costs.

"We're very concerned. We're focused on cleaning up," he said.

Refineries in Texas City appeared to have enough crude oil on hand to continue operating until the ship channel can re-open, Patterson said.

Environmental groups said the spill occurred at an especially sensitive time and place. The channel in Texas City, about 45 miles southeast of Houston, has shorebird habitat on both sides, and tens of thousands of wintering birds are still in the area.

At least 50 birds of six species have needed treatment due to the oil, said Richard Gibbons, conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society. The species include sanderling, ruddy turnstone and the American white pelican, Gibbons said.

Two cruise ships were allowed to travel through the spill area "to minimize inconvenience" to thousands of passengers and limit the spill's economic effects, the Coast Guard said.

Update, 3 p.m. Monday: Texas Parks and Wildlife issued this update:

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department personnel are continuing to look for wildlife affected following the Saturday oil spill in the Houston Ship Channel.

As of Sunday, three birds were taken to a private wildlife rehabilitation service field station for rehabilitation and three birds were found dead. More oiled birds are expected to be found.

Monday, teams of state and federal biologists were checking eastern Galveston Island, Pelican Island and the Bolivar peninsula looking for other affected wildlife.

According to TPWD personnel on the scene, Bolivar Flats is currently a potential hotspot, since it is a significant refuge for birds.  Expectations are that oiled birds will fly there and with decreasing temperatures, more impact on birds is expected. High tides could impact further as habitats become inundated.

In addition to the field work underway,TWPD staff are participating in the incident command operation in Texas City and assisting with response activities for reported impacted wildlife.

5 Things To Know About The Oil Spill

What happened?

The Coast Guard says a barge carrying about 900,000 gallons of heavy oil collided with a ship Saturday in the Houston Ship Channel, spilling as much as 168,000 gallons into one of the world's busiest waterways. Oil has been detected 12 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

How are authorities responding?

The barge and the unaffected oil tanks have been moved. The Coast Guard has shut down the channel while cleanup continues, forcing more than 80 ships to wait to enter or leave the bay. Twenty-four vessels are working to skim the oil, and containment booms have been deployed. Authorities say part of the channel could be opened sometime Monday.

What are the environmental effects?

Authorities and environmental groups are still assessing how the oil spill has affected the environment and wildlife. The channel in Texas City has important shorebird habitat on both sides, and tens of thousands of wintering birds are still in the area. Richard Gibbons of the Houston Audubon Society says at least 50 birds of six species have needed treatment due to the oil. The Texas General Land Office has also deployed a bird-rehabilitation trailer in the area.

What is the economic impact?

A prolonged closure of the ship channel could push up fuel prices briefly, said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Jim Ritterbusch and Associates in Chicago. If the bottleneck eases soon, fuel prices probably won't change much.

Who's at fault?

The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating. Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer says the investigation will take a while because of the complexity of the vessels and the busy channel.

NPR has more details.

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