Ferry running, Ship Channel reopens to barge traffic

They worry that oil leaked during a vessel collision near the Texas City dike may reach as far as Matagorda Bay
March 25, 2014 2:23:09 PM PDT
The Houston Ship Channel has reopened to barge traffic only, three days after a barge collision dumped as many as 170,000 gallons of heavy oil into the water near Galveston.

Bolivar Ferry services have resumed, with limited service hours from 7am to 7pm. Officials say to plan on additional travel time because vessels will likely be travelling with reduced capacity and at slower speeds.

On Day 4 of cleanup, the Houston Ship Channel was also reopened to barge traffic, but no other vessels yet.

"We will continue to monitor those transits to ensure that there is no danger of oiling the vessels that are making the transit," Captain Brian Penoyer with the US Coast Guard.

Cleanup has been a struggle because of the wind and the choppy water combining to carry oil further. Despite containment efforts, some oil has escaped into the Gulf of Mexico, and some has already washed ashore on Galveston Island. Right now, there's about 15.5 miles of non-consecutive shoreline impacted.

"We intend to protect the public from exposure to this oil. We will remove this oil from the environment while protecting it," said Penoyer said.

At least 60 birds have been spotted covered in oil, according to the Houston Audubon Society. So far, 18 of them have been captured and another 10 have died from the exposure.

Crews are trying to clean some of the affected birds. Authorities urge anyone who spots impacted wildlife not to touch the creatures, but instead call1-888-384-200.

The US Coast Guard is now calling on Texas A&M Marine experts in Galveston to conduct an environmental impact study. There's also growing concern about the economic impact to businesses.

"We've had a lot of dead fish come up right around here and some birds with oil in them," Bolivar resident Will Raney said.

Some maritime experts say the accident has also had an economic impact in the area. They are predicting losses in the millions of dollars.

Authorities hope the closure of the Houston Ship Channel could end sometime Tuesday, allowing more than 80 stranded ships to resume activity. The channel, part of the Port of Houston, typically handles as many as 80 large ships daily, as well as about 300 to 400 tugboats and barges.

About the company and investigation

As crews respond to the spill itself, an entirely different group of Coast Guard responders are investigating the cause of the collision. While it's too early to determine exactly what led to the crash, we are learning more about the tug boat involved.

"I'm really not prepared to engage in an assessment of the overall safety record at the moment," said Coast Guard Captain Brian Penoyer. "And frankly, we're fully engaged in an oil spill response."

While the Coast Guard is busy dealing with this massive oil spill, the safety record of the company operating the oil barge is coming to the surface.

A search of the Coast Guard's accident investigation reports over the past ten years shows the barge 'Miss Susan' has been involved in eighteen incidents or accidents. Six of those were collisions with other vessels, docks and bridges.

The barge has also run aground and experienced mechanical failures, including loss of power or steering eleven times.

In 2010, the Coast Guard found the person operating the barge did not have the proper license to operate it.

However, none of these past incidents and accidents involved injuries or pollution of waterways.

"I think it's probably human error," said Dr. Paul Montagna, an expert in oil spill cleanup with the Harte Research Institute. "It's probably a lot like what happens on our highways every single day. If you're not attentive when you're using these large complex systems, it's real easy for accidents to occur."

Kirby Inland Marine is the nation's largest operator of inland tank barges and towing vessels.

In 2011, the state of Texas recognized the company for its efforts to protect coastal environments. But earlier this month, another oil barge operated by Kirby collided with a rice tanker in the Ship Channel. There were no injuries and no leaks from that collision and Ship Channel traffic was unaffected.

"Safety is one of our franchises to operate and so we focus on safety and navigation safety in training," said Jim Guidry with Kirby Inland Marine.

No word yet on when the Coast Guard will wrap up its investigation into this accident.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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