Pelican Island bridge reopens for evacuation-only after barge slams into span, causing oil spill

Thursday, May 16, 2024 3:18AM
Pelican Island bridge reopens for exit-only after barge slams into it
A barge hit the Pelican Island Causeway Wednesday morning, causing a piece of the bridge to fall, according to the Galveston County Sheriff's Office.

GALVESTON COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- A barge hit the Pelican Island Causeway Wednesday morning, damaging a portion of the bridge and causing an oil spill in the bay, according to the Galveston County Sheriff's Office.

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway is shut down for approximately 6.5 miles between marker 350.5 to 357 as officials respond to this incident, County Judge Mark Henry said, adding that the oil spill is heading in that direction, so the U.S. Coast Guard decided to move forward with the closure.

The closure is a major setback for operations as significant maritime commercial traffic uses the waterway along the Texas coast.

A barge hit the Pelican Island Causeway Wednesday morning, causing a piece of the bridge to fall, according to the Galveston County Sheriff's Office.

It also has implications for those on Pelican Island. It's located north of Galveston, with that bridge as the only way on and off Pelican Island.

Galveston County emergency management canceled evacuations from Pelican Island at about 6 p.m. because the bridge was "unstable" and "handrails and concrete were seen shifting."

Before stopping evacuations, officials were allowing drivers to pass the bridge one by one, at about 20 feet apart.

At 8 p.m., the emergency management reopened the bridge only for people exiting Pelican Island, not allowing anyone to enter.

The traffic line to leave was still congested by 9 p.m., and there was no longer a hard stop for evacuations.

As everyone on Pelican Island is able to drive off and evacuate, residents like Andrea Dunlap, who has lived there for two years, are concerned about how soon they'll be let back in.

"I'm just hoping that if they do have to shut down the bridge, they're going to find another option to get us back and forth," she said.

Harborside Drive is open to east-west traffic. However, drivers will not be able to travel north toward Pelican Island from 51st and Harborside. Galveston police officers are detouring traffic in the area.

Henry said at about 10 a.m., the vessel under tow broke loose and slammed into the railroad side of the bridge. The rail portion is not in use.

Officials told ABC13 that two crew members on the ship were either thrown or jumped off, but they were rescued quickly. Emergency management leaders confirmed with ABC13 that there were less than 200 people on the island when the incident happened.

Vacuum gas oil is leaking from the barge, which has a capacity of 30,000 gallons and is operated by Martin Operating Partnership.

Eyewitness News reached out to the company but has yet to hear back.

Officials said the vessel is carrying a base petroleum product, and the Coast Guard is investigating reports of pollution.

A view from SkyEye showed about a 300-foot sheen on the water in the bay.

Officials said that crews are at the scene assessing the damage to the bridge, including four TxDOT inspectors.

Despite an initial outage, Henry said that the island has since switched over to a secondary power route.

Texas A&M University Galveston is on Pelican Island and shared an alert Wednesday about the bridge closure:

"Sea Aggie Alert: The Pelican Island Bridge is closed to all traffic at this time due to a barge strike. Electricity has been restored, and additional updates will be provided as the situation unfolds. The next scheduled update will be at 1200."

TAMU is one of the main buildings on the island. The university held commencement ceremonies last week.

Emergency management leaders told ABC13 that, as of 4 p.m., at least half of the students at the Texas A&M campus had been evacuated off the island.

Pelican Island is also home to a number of attractions, including Seawolf Park and the Galveston Naval Museum, as well as several port-related industries.

Of note, the Battleship Texas has been in dry dock on Pelican Island as it undergoes major renovations. It re-entered the water in March and is expected to reopen sometime in 2025 or 2026.

What to know about Pelican Island Causeway

The causeway itself is 3,239 feet long with a span of 164.1 feet.

A proposal was put forth to replace the bridge, with construction to start in summer 2025.

It would stretch from SH 275 to Seawolf Parkway.

The Seawolf Parkway bridge connects Pelican Island to Galveston Island within the city of Galveston.

An overview of the project read, "The deterioration of the Seawolf Parkway bridge has progressed to the extent that any additional deterioration could result in sudden bridge closure. Since this bridge provides sole access to Pelican Island, bridge closure would effectively cut off access for all users, including evacuation and emergency services."

The bridge was constructed in 1960 and is at the end of its functional life.

TxDOT plans to begin construction next summer, but it is unclear if the schedule has been affected by Wednesday's incident.

Authorities are concerned that the collision will render the bridge unusable. It is expected to remain closed until it is deemed safe to use.

What spilled into the bay?

Officials say the liquid is vacuum gas oil, a heavy oil byproduct of vacuum distillation of crude oil.

Honeywell, who was not involved in this incident, describes VGO as "a key feedstock for fluid catalytic crackers used to make transportation fuels and many other by-products."

The oil is flammable when heated to high temperatures. Because of its makeup and heavy odor, it shouldn't be released into ditches, sewers, or waterways.

Even small amounts can cause mild to severe pulmonary injury if breathed into the lungs. VGO may also irritate the eyes and skin.

Ingesting or inhaling heated vapors or mists could also cause headaches, sleepiness, dizziness, slurred speech, and blurred vision, and it may cause skin cancer.

"That's devastating. The fish, the birds, and everything, it's not going to be great," Dunlap said.

As officials work on clean-up plans both for the oil and broken pieces of the bridge, people like Dunlap are concerned about the long-term effects of this entire situation.

The U.S. Coast Guard said they're looking into why this happened in the first place and will determine the extent of the spill,

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