Continuing explosions have hampered fire-fighter in their efforts to snuff out a blaze on an oil tanker that ran aground in 40 feet of water and has been oozing its cargo onto Texas beaches since Nov. 1.
The Burmah Agate was disabled in a fiery collision with another tanker near this port city. Fourteen seamen were killed; another 18 members of the crew are missing and presumed dead.
"We have pretty extensive oil coverage all along the beaches of Galveston Island," said Lt. Gabe Kinney, operations officer at the Coast Guard station here. "There are places that are unaffected and it varies in intensity from mousse to very light sheen."
Mousse is a heavy concentration of floating oil that coagulates into tar balls through the action of sea water.
Officials, fearing a major oil spill, announced that they were bringing in Navy equipment used in the Mexican oil spill in the Bay of Campeche. "We're going to stage it in the Galveston area in the event we have to deal with a lot of oil," said Chief Petty Officer Richard Griggs. "There is a lot of oil still on board that tanker."
The Burmah Agate was headed to a Houston refinery with 390,000 gallons of light crude oil when it collided in congested sea lanes before dawn last Thursday with the freighter Mimosa.
The accident has intensified opposition here to a plan to locate the nation's firs on-land terminal for oil supertankes in Galveston. It has rekindled concerns about explosions, fires and spills and about the ability this island city of 60,000 people -- which lacks even a fireboat -- to contend with them.
And it has underscored a deep split here between Galveston environmentalists and other residents of the city who, while conceding there are risks, say the port is needed to create jobs and boost Galveston's economy.
Opponents of the proposal by Pelican Terminal Corp. cite the firm's intention to locate the superport close to Galveston's densely populated East End residential area, less than a mile from the University of Texas Medical Branch. The medical branch, with 6,500 employes, is the city's largest employer.
"The fire burning out at sea is one thing," Jamie Frucht, a saleswoman and member of the anti-superport group here, told a citizens forum last week as the mile-long slick continued to burn in the gulf. She continued: "The same fire inside our harbor could have produced a holocaust. Imagine if 2 1/2 miles of ancient wooden pier had caught fire."
The proposed superport would be located on Pelican Island, a sandspit just northwest of the eastern part of Galveston Island. If it succeeded in lining up contracts from major oil companies, it probably would end plans for a larger, state-owned oil terminal environmentalists widely support. That, facility, Seadock, would be locaed 26 miles out into the Gulf off Freeport, 25 miles south of here.
Dr. Mason Guest, a professor at the medical branch and a leader of the anti-superport group Stop the Terminal on Pelican (STOP), said that had the collision involved a supertanker, and had the wind been from a typical southerly direction, Galveston beaches would have been fouled almost immediately and the city's $56 million annual tourist income threatened for years.
Such a collision, either in Galveston Bay or in Galveston Ship Channel, "could destroy the whole Galveston Bay estuarine system," one of the world's most productive nursery areas for shrimp, fin fish and shellfish, Guest said.
Frank Williamson, a local pharmation for a Better Seaport (JOBS), said the Burmah Agate, built in 1963, was typical of the "rust buckets" currently involved locally in carrying oil.
A spokesman for the publicly owned Galveston Wharves Co. said last week's wreck proves "our contention all along that the number of collisions is related to the number of ships using the port, and that there is less danger from a small number of large tankers than from a larger number of small tankers."
The issue will come up at a Nov. 15 hearing that will be held here by the Environmental Protection Agency.