Cleanup in Houston Ship Channel goes on, as does investigation


We got an update Monday afternoon from local and state agencies about progress being made with the cleanup.

We learned the Bolivar Ferry is back up and running, though on a 7am to 7pm schedule. What we're waiting to hear, and so are dozens of vessels, is when will the Ship Channel itself will reopen. Right now, there are 46 outbound vessels and 47 inbound vessels in the queue for transit in the Port of Houston, and the Port of Texas City has a total of eight vessels in the queue awaiting transit.

"We can't allow vessels to come in and out. because when they go through they're spreading the oil."

Time is money. Some maritime experts are predicting losses in the millions of dollars. All cruise liners dealing with a customer service nightmare. Some passengers throwing up the flag. Some cruise liners offering full refunds and extra discounts for future voyages.

Before the port can be reopened, unified command must be sure the impacted areas aren't at risk of future oiling. Vessels involved also have to be cleaned. So at this point, there isn't a timeline.

More than 500 active responders were on scene Monday. Weather was a major factor in containment, as wind and currents pushed the oil to shore.

At this point, using a dispersant is not being considered.

As for the investigation into what happened, the NTSB is getting involved. They say liability will be determined by the courts. Right now, they're just collecting evidence. Kirby Inland Marine came forward immediately after the crash, and assumed responsibility for funding the oil spill response.

So far, seven oiled birds have been captured, seven have died and they have identified another eight that are oiled, but not captured. Containment booms are set up to keep any more oil from coming ashore.

"We are defining the problem," said Bruce Clawson with Texas City Emergency Management. "We do it several times and day and that's what we're doing this morning."

They're flying the scene trying to get a handle on how far the oil has spread.

"This spill - I think if we keep our fingers crossed - is not going to have the negative impact that it could have had," said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the lead state agency on the response to the spill.

About 168,000 gallons spewed into the busy waterway after a collision between a ship and a barge which was carrying the fuel Saturday. More than 71,000 feet of containment boom has been deployed and an additional 192,500 feet are staged for possible deployment.

Authorities call this a significant spill. It's shut down the Ship Channel and, for a couple of days, the Bolivar Ferry.

Businesses know they'll be closed for days, maybe weeks. But the owner of one bait shop worries about the lingering effects even beyond that.

"Whatever the after affects to all this is, people being scared of the fish, isn't no good to eat and all that," said Lee Rilet of Lee's Bait and Tackle.

Everyone is watching the water today, even visitors.

"We're just making sure,' said Lori Brown.

The spill happened the day Brown got here from Minnesota. She hasn't seen any oil on the beach yet and says she hopes to keep it that way.

"We're not gonna let it ruin our trip," she said.

Fishing has been closed along the Texas City Dike. A sticky tar-like substance has washed up along the shoreline of the Dike, a 5 mile long jetty that juts out into Galveston Bay across from Galveston Island.

The public is reminded to refrain from capturing any potentially affected wildlife you're urged to contact Wildlife Response Service at 1-888-384-2000 if you come across any.

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 with the Harte Research Institute.

Dr. Montagna is an expert in oil spill cleanup.

"It's probably a lot like what happens on our highways every single day," he said. "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.

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