Oil spill shutters busy Houston Ship Channel
Michael Gracyk , The Associated Press
Published Sunday, March 23, 2014 9:27PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, March 24, 2014 12:00AM EDT
TEXAS CITY, Texas -- A barge that once carried some 900,000 gallons of heavy tar-like oil was cleared Sunday of its remaining contents, a day after the vessel collided with a ship in the busy Houston Ship Channel and leaked as much as about a fifth of its cargo into the waterway.
Coast Guard officials said that up to 168,000 gallons were dumped after one of the barge's tanks ruptured and that oil had been detected 12 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico as of Sunday afternoon.
"This is a significant spill," Capt. Brian Penoyer, commander of the Coast Guard at Houston-Galveston, said.
But he said the emptying of the barge Sunday, a process known as lightering as contents are transferred to other vessels, was an important step as it had eliminated the risk of additional oil spilling.
The channel, one of the world's busiest waterways for moving petrochemicals, was shut for a second day Sunday. As many as 60 vessels were backed up both trying to get out and get in.
Over 380 people -- "and we've ordered more," Penoyer said -- plus a fleet of oil-retrieving skimmers and other vessels deploying some 60,000 feet of containment booms around environmentally sensitive areas worked to mitigate the damage.
The area is home to popular bird habitats, especially during the approaching migratory shorebird season.
Officials said they had scattered reports of wildlife damage but no specifics. Some black tar-like globs, along with a dark line of a sticky, oily substance, could be detected along the shoreline of the Texas City dike, a 5-mile-long jetty that juts into Galveston Bay across from a tip of Galveston Island.
"That is the consistency of what the cargo looks like," Jim Guidry, executive vice president of Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine Corp., the nation's largest inland barge company and owner of the barge, said when the substance was described to him at a news conference. "We're very concerned. We're focused on cleaning up," he said.
He said the company was taking responsibility for the costs.
The barge has been moved to a shipyard and is no longer at the scene of the spill, according to a statement Sunday evening from Texas Gov. Rick Perry's office.
Penoyer said at least one cruise ship, initially socked in by fog Saturday, was being allowed to end its trip and return to Galveston. He said others would be handled on a case-by-case basis. Its path into Galveston would take it through a safety zone defining the oil cleanup area.
There was no timetable for a total reopening of the channel, which typically handles as many as 80 vessels daily.
The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating what happened.
"It will take quite a bit of time, given the complexity of the vessels and a very busy waterway," Penoyer said.
The contents of the torn tank, equal to about 4,000 barrels, were lost or displaced into other vacant areas of the barge. Penoyer said currents, tides and wind were scattering the spill.
"Containment was never a possibility in this case," he said.
Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Jim Ritterbusch and Associates in Chicago, said if the bottleneck of vessels in the Gulf eased in a day or so, there likely wouldn't be much impact on fuel prices. A more prolonged backup could push up prices briefly, he suggested.
Also closed was the Texas City dike, a popular fishing spot that goes out into the Gulf for a few miles.
Lee Rilat, 58, owns Lee's Bait and Tackle, the last store before the access road to the dike, which was blocked by a police car on a breezy, overcast Sunday. If it weren't for the spill, Rilat's business would be hopping.
"This would be the first spring deal, the first real weekend for fishing," he said.
Rilat, who's lived in the area most of his life, said ships and barges have collided before. He said he doesn't think the spill is too big of a deal.
The spill site is 700 yards offshore from the Texas City dike. A crane and several small boats could be seen at the cleanup site, and dozens of trucks were at a staging area along the beach.
The captain of the 585-foot ship, Summer Wind, reported the spill Saturday afternoon. Six crew members from the tow vessel, which was going from Texas City to Port Bolivar, Texas, were injured, the Coast Guard said.
Jim Suydam, spokesman for the Texas' General Land Office, described the type of oil the barge was carrying as "sticky, gooey, thick, tarry stuff."
Richard Gibbons, the conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society, said there is important shorebird habitat on both sides of the ship channel. One is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary just to the east, which Gibbons said attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats that are perfect foraging habitat.
"The timing really couldn't be much worse since we're approaching the peak shorebird migration season," Gibbons said. He added that tens of thousands of wintering birds remain in the area.
Associated Press writers Terry Wallace in Dallas and Marcy Gordon in Washington contributed to this report.