Coast Guard works to reopen Texas shipping channel after oil spill near Galveston Bay


Workers scoop up clumps of oil-soaked sand along the beach in Texas City during a clean up effort, Monday, March 24, 2014 after a barge struck a cargo ship near the Dike in Texas City, Texas. (Kirk Sides/AP)
March 24

— As workers in bright yellow suits picked quarter-size “tar balls” out of the sand along Galveston Bay on Monday, strong incoming tides kept washing more ashore.

Elsewhere, crews lined up miles of oil booms to keep oil away from the shoreline and bird habitats, two days after a collision in the Houston Ship Channel dumped as much as 170,000 gallons of oil from a barge into the water along the Gulf Coast and shut down one of the nation’s busiest seaports.

With cleanup well underway, the Coast Guard said that it hoped to have the channel open to barge traffic as quickly as possible but that more tests were needed to confirm that the water and the vessels traveling through the channel were free of oil.

The closure stranded some 80 vessels on both sides of the channel. Traffic through the channel includes ships serving refineries key to American oil production.

Officials believe most of the oil that spilled Saturday is drifting out of the Houston Ship Channel into the Gulf of Mexico, which should limit the impact on bird habitats around Galveston Bay as well as the impact on beaches and fisheries important to tourists.

“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 spill response.

The best-case scenario is for most of the slick to remain in the gulf for several days or longer and congeal into small tar balls that wash up further south on the Texas coast, where they could be picked up and removed, Patterson said. Crews from the General Land Office are monitoring water currents and the movement of the oil, he said.

Parts of Galveston Island, a destination for tourists drawn to its beaches and parks, were closed to the public Monday. Crews have laid booms around environmentally sensitive areas.

Some black, tarlike globs, along with a dark line of a sticky, oily substance, were seen along the shoreline of the Texas City dike, a five-mile jetty that juts into Galveston Bay across from a tip of Galveston Island.

Seawolf Park in Galveston, a popular spot for fishermen and tourists, was closed Monday after small amounts of oil were spotted in the water, manager John McMichael said.

Jim Guidry, and executive with Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine Corp., which owned the barge involved in the collision, has said the company — the nation’s largest operator of inland barges — will pay for the cleanup.

“We’re very concerned,” he said. “We’re focused on cleaning up.”

Environmental groups said the spill occurred at an especially sensitive time and place. The channel in Texas City, about 45 miles southeast of Houston, has shorebird habitat on both sides, and tens of thousands of wintering birds are still in the area.

At least 50 birds of six species have needed treatment because of the oil, said Richard Gibbons, conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society. The species include sanderling, ruddy turnstone and the American white pelican, Gibbons said.

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