Refiners, shippers feel immediate strain from Houston Ship Channel closure

TEXAS CITY and PORT BOLIVAR, Texas -- An investigation continues into the cause of a ship collision that spilled some 170,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into waters at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel, shutting all traffic in and out of the busy port for a third day as oil spill cleanup proceeded.

Meanwhile, conservation groups have only begun piecing together a picture of the extent of the damage to wildlife from the spill as of yesterday afternoon, stymied by high tide and the closure of a ferry service between Port Bolivar and Galveston that normally crosses right over the region where the spill occurred.

Ship traffic was backed up all the way to the northeastern reaches of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway late yesterday. The numbers keep fluctuating, but officials say about 80 vessels were left stranded because of the spill, half waiting to get into the ship channel and the other half seeking to depart it. The Houston Ship Channel is a central feature of Houston's large oil and gas and refining industry, and concern is mounting over how big an economic hit from the spill this region will likely take.

Refineries along the channel were reportedly already cutting back on production due to the disruption to traffic.

During a news conference in Texas City, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer said a shift in winds and surface currents moved floating oil, with some of it offshore after exiting Galveston Bay. There are patches of floating oil inside the bay, and there also has been some contamination of the shoreline, he added.

"We are in recovery throughout the Galveston Bay and offshore, both from floating assets, skimmers large and small, as well as offshore skimmers, as well as shoreline collection and recovery of oil," Penoyer said. He said more than 400 people were in the field responding, in addition to the command post staffed by various agencies and companies. There are currently no indications of any plans to use dispersant for the response.

Cause not yet known

A joint response team has not concluded exactly what led to the collision between a dry freighter and a liquids barge operated by Kirby Inland Marine. The collision that led to the spill occurred Saturday, and the accident response kept the ship channel closed all day Sunday and yesterday.

Penoyer said the Coast Guard is leading a safety investigation along with the National Transportation Safety Board. Collection of evidence and testimony that are relevant to the investigation is under way, he said.

Drug and alcohol testing is part of the investigation process. The ultimate resolution of the costs involved in the response happens after the response is done, Penoyer said.

"Liability is a matter for the courts," he said. "It is not a matter for the investigation."

The Coast Guard captain praised Kirby for its response. He said Kirby stepped forward and assumed responsibility for funding the oil spill response and has been an active member of this unified command from the time of the accident.

Coast Guard Lt. Sam Danus said that the response team was seeking to partially reopen ship traffic in and out of the channel as soon as possible. With ferry service resuming in the late afternoon yesterday, it appeared that efforts to reopen some portion of the route to petrochemical industry shipping were advancing.

"There are three priorities today. One is facilitating commerce, obviously with Houston being one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world," Danus said. "No. 2 is trying to reduce the impacts to the residents on the Bolivar Peninsula by getting ferries up and running again."


Officials confirmed that the barge damaged in the spill has been secured and that the remaining fuel oil it was carrying has been completely offloaded. "It is waiting to be taken to a shipyard, to a dry dock, for a full damage assessment," Danus said.

Danus said the agency's third greatest priority is "oil spill recovery and rehabilitating wildlife that have been affected by the spill."

Damage to wildlife

Officials from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are on hand to assist with the mission to keep as many affected birds alive as possible.

The oil spill could have been much worse; the barge was estimated to be hauling about 1 million gallons of heavy shipping fuel at the time of the incident. Only one of the barge's holding tanks broke open and spilled all of its contents.

Richard Arnhart, an official with the Texas General Land Office, said that there were at least five birds going through rehabilitation. He said a prompt response may be a factor in not a lot of wildlife becoming affected so far, though more affected animals were being sighted. Three dead birds had been found covered in oil, Arnhart added.

Nevertheless, conservation groups surveying the damage yesterday said it looked to be potentially substantial.

"We've had oiled birds up and down the beach all day," Pete Deichmann, a conservation specialist at the Houston chapter of the Audubon Society, said in an interview. "But a lot of these birds, they can still fly. They're still foraging."

Deichmann said the response crews have largely been successful with containing the worst of the spill in an area close where the collision occurred, with the thickest deposits of oil staying on the west side of the channel. Leaked fuel oil was washing up along the northern beaches of Galveston Island and Pelican Island.

The problem, Deichmann said, is that most of the birds that stay at the Audubon Society's Bolivar Flats sanctuary forage in the area of the spill. The sanctuary itself was free of oil by late yesterday, but oil-covered birds were seen all along the beach. Wildlife experts will only be able to clean the birds that are too heavily affected to fly away, or those that are too sick to move. More lightly affected birds may eventually die from ingesting oil as they preen their feathers.

The spill comes at one of the worst times for the wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of birds are now in the midst of their spring migration along the Texas Gulf of Mexico coast. The Audubon Society estimates that up to 5,000 individual birds can be seen at its Bolivar Peninsula sanctuaries on a typical day during this time of year, roosting just a short distance from the source of the spill.

"It's going to take a few days, and it's going to be continuous monitoring," Deichmann said.

Reopening the channel

In terms of resuming regular navigation along the vital Houston Ship Channel, the Coast Guard provided no timing or forward outlook. Penoyer said there are a couple of factors at play.

The unified command must be assured that the previously affected area doesn't pose a risk of further "oiling," he said. "In other words, we have to have clean water."

"In order for us to resume those transits, we'll need to ensure that they're not going to become oiled on their transit in or out," Penoyer said. "Further, we'll have to ensure that the transit does not impact cleanup operations."

The Coast Guard says that for now there are no health advisories, but the agency is stressing that people need to stay away from the oil, including fishing in the vicinity. Plans were in the works for a thorough survey of the entire affected shoreline.

Penoyer acknowledged that the impact on wildlife could be much greater than what is currently understood.

"We are now beginning to receive the reports of impacted wildlife, which one could expect from a spill of this magnitude," he said. "This is a very serious spill, a large quantity of oil."

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