Coast Guard reopens contaminated section of Houston Ship Channel

HOUSTON – The United States Coast Guard reopened a section of the Houston Ship Channel on Wednesday that was closed last week after toxic chemicals seeped into it during a chemical fire at the Deer Park ITC storage facility.

Traffic is moving again within limits, but still far from being back to normal.

As cleanup crews continue to skim oily sludge along a seven-mile stretch of the ship channel, roughly from Tucker’s Bayou to Lynchburg, the Coast Guard reopened the contaminated area to ship traffic.

The section was closed March 22 after a fire and dike breach at the ITC facility sent an unknown amount of toxic chemicals into the channel.

"We’re largely moving but it's selected metered traffic. We’re moving traffic essentially in both directions, it's just one way at a time for ships. So, we ran a ship out this morning. Later today we’ll start seeing the first inbound ships above Lynchburg,” vessel traffic services director Steve Nerheim said.

At the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Center, controllers limit travel to daytime only, and one way at a time. Speed is limited so as not to disturb the cleanup efforts, and vessels going through are inspected to remove any chemicals that might cling to their hulls.

To allow inspection, ships and barges are being allowed to pass though the area in 30-minute intervals. Normally, the separation between vessels would be about five minutes.

The Coast Guard said traffic is now about 50 percent normal and improving incrementally each day.

The slowdown caused Lyondell and Shell to cut back production at their ship channel plants.

James Prazak with Tricon Energy said everyone is feeling the pain.

"We, and everyone else out here who have cargo moving on the ship channel, are probably affected one way or another,” he said.

As the channel slowly recovers, the negative economic impact is estimated to be up to $1 billion by experts at the University of Houston.

On Wednesday morning, just over 100 vessels were waiting to enter the channel. The Coast Guard is trying to open up that bottleneck, but no one is really sure when traffic at the busiest energy port in the country will be back to normal.