'Significant' oil spill closes US ship channel

2014-03-24 12:41
Heavy crude oil washes over booms and onto the beach along Boddeker Road in Galveston. (Jennifer Reynolds, AP)

Heavy crude oil washes over booms and onto the beach along Boddeker Road in Galveston. (Jennifer Reynolds, AP)

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Texas City - No timetable has been set to reopen a major US shipping channel after nearly 643 500 litres of tar-like oil spilled into the Texas waterway, but more help was being called in on Monday to contain the spill and protect important shorebird habitat.

A barge carrying about 3.4 million litres of the heavy oil collided with a ship on Saturday in the busy Houston Ship Channel, spilling as much as a fifth of its cargo into one of the world's busiest waterways for moving petrochemicals, according to the Coast Guard.

The channel, part of the Port of Houston, typically handles as many as 80 vessels daily. But it will remain closed for a third day on Monday, and the Coast Guard said there was no timetable on when it may reopen.

If the bottleneck of vessels in the Gulf eases in a day or so, there likely wouldn't be much impact on fuel prices. But a more prolonged backup could push up prices briefly, said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Jim Ritterbusch and associates in Chicago.

Oil had been detected 19km offshore in the Gulf of Mexico by Sunday, and as many as 60 vessels were either waiting to get in or out. The Coast Guard, which called it a "significant spill", said it expected to deploy more containment booms on Monday, with 24 vessels working to skim the oil.

'Significant spill'

Environmental groups said the spill occurred at an especially sensitive time. The channel in Texas City, about 72km southeast of Houston, has important shorebird habitat on both sides, and tens of thousands of wintering birds are still in the area.

"The timing really couldn't be much worse since we're approaching the peak shorebird migration season", said Richard Gibbons, conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society.

He noted that just to the east is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, which attracts 50 000 to 70 000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats that are perfect foraging habitat.

Fewer than 10 oiled birds had been found and recovered for transfer to a wildlife rehabilitation centre as of Sunday afternoon, according to the Coast Guard. The Texas general land office has also deployed a bird rehabilitation trailer in the area for quick response.

"This is a significant spill", Captain Brian Penoyer, commander of the Coast Guard at Houston Galveston, said. But he said the emptying the remaining oil from the barge on Sunday, a process known as lightering as contents are transferred to other vessels, was an important step and eliminated the risk of additional oil spilling.

More than 380 people, "and we've ordered more", Penoyer said along with a fleet of oil-retrieving skimmers and other vessels were deploying some 18 288m of containment booms around environmentally sensitive areas worked to mitigate the damage.

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 8km 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, said when the substance was described to him at a news conference.

Guidry said the company, the nation's largest inland barge company and owner of the barge that spilled the oil 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 Governor Rick Perry's office.

Two cruise ships were allowed to travel through the incident area "to minimise inconvenience to the thousands of passengers aboard and limit economic impacts from the spill", according to a statement on Sunday evening from the Coast Guard.

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.

The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are still investigating what happened.

The captain of the ship Summer Wind reported the spill on 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.
Read more on:    us  |  environment  |  conservation

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