The Houston Ship Channel opened up Wednesday after workers emptied a barge that carried 900,000 gallons of heavy tar-like oil after the vessel collided with a ship Saturday in the busy Houston Ship Channel and leaked as much as 25 percent of its cargo into the waterway.
Coast Guard officials said up to 168,000 gallons that drained out of the barge into the waterway from the ruptured barge ended up detected 12 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico as of Sunday afternoon.
“This is a significant spill,” said Capt. Brian Penoyer, commander of the Coast Guard at Houston-Galveston.
But he said emptying the barge Sunday, a process known as lightering as contents transfer to other vessels, was significant. “The remaining risk of pollution, we’ve removed that,” he said.
Just under 400 workers plus a fleet of oil-retrieving skimmers and other vessels deploying containment booms around environmentally sensitive areas worked to mitigate the damage.
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, were visible 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,” said Jim Guidry, executive vice president of Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine Corp., the nation’s largest inland barge company and owner of the barge. “We’re very concerned. We’re focused on cleaning up,” he said.
He said the company was taking responsibility for the costs. The barge was en route to a shipyard.
The channel, one of the world’s busiest waterways for moving petrochemicals, remained shut until Wednesday morning. As many as 80 vessels ended up backed up both trying to get out and get in.
Penoyer said at least one cruise ship, initially socked in by fog Saturday, gained approval to return to Galveston. He said others would end up handled on a case-by-case basis. Its path into Galveston would take it through a safety zone defining the oil cleanup area.
The channel typically handles as many as 80 vessels daily.
The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the incident.
The contents of the torn tank, equal to about 4,000 barrels, either ended up 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.
Crews were skimming oil from the water and deployed some 60,000 feet of containment booms to protect environmentally sensitive areas, the Coast Guard said. The area is home to popular bird habitats, especially during the approaching migratory shorebird season.
Also closed was the Texas City dike, a popular fishing spot that goes out into the Gulf for a few miles.
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, suffered injuries, the Coast Guard said.