Oil spills into Houston ship channel after barge and tanker collide

The accident happened near the Texas City dike Saturday morning, leaving a barge leaking oil into the water
March 23, 2014 5:10:07 AM PDT
A barge carrying 924,000 gallons of thick, tarry fuel oil collided Saturday with another ship in the Houston ship channel and was leaking oil, officials said.

The U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement Saturday that it received a call at about 12:30 p.m. from the captain of the 585-foot ship Summer Wind reporting its collision with a barge.

The barge was being towed from Texas City to Bolivar at the time. Kirby Inland Marine, owner of the tow vessel Miss Susan and the barge, is working with the Coast Guard and Texas General Land Office at the scene, according to the Coast Guard.

A big effort is underway right now to contain the spill. The Texas City Office of Emergency Management is calling the spill moderate, even though there's about a million gallons of oil on the barge that crashed and as much as 168,000 gallons assumed to have leaked.

"There's a reasonable amount of oil in the water," said Bruce Clawson with the Texas City OEM. "I can't tell you it's a substantial amount of oil. That's being assessed at this point."

Environmental crews, boats and oil booms miles long were brought in to the Texas City Dike for deployment.

On its Facebook page, Texas City Emergency Management said the dike and all parks on the water are closed until further notice. And the Coast Guard said that part of the Houston ship channel was closed to traffic.

Richard Gibbons, the conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society, said there is very important shorebird habitat on both sides of the Houston ship channel.

Audubon has the internationally-recognized 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. He did not know how much oil had been spilled, but said authorities were aware of the sanctuaries and had practiced using containment booms in the past.

"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.

The spill affected people fishing, too.

"Now the oil is coming back around the other side," said Geoff Roberts, who was out fishing Saturday.

When Roberts pulled his boat out of the water, he noticed a layer of oil caked on the side. It was on his fishing reel, too.

"They even told us don't eat any fish you catch today," said Roberts.

The big concern now is keeping more oil from the barge from seeping into the bay.

Two people on that barge were taken to the hospital after coming into contact with hydrogen sulfide -- a dangerous and highly flammable gas. Their conditions are unknown. Also unknown is the cause of the crash.

Because of the oil spill, ferry services between Galveston and Bolivar have been suspended.

Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. Suydam said that spill spurred the creation of the General Land Office's Oil Spill and Prevention Division, which is funded by a tax on imported oil that the state legislature passed after the Valdez spill. The division does extensive response planning including pre-positioned equipment along the Texas coast.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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