Coast Guard will re-evaluate ship channel traffic Tuesday

By Amanda Perez, Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

Officials with the U.S. Coast Guard will re-evaluate Tuesday whether vessel traffic can resume along the economically vital Houston Ship Channel.

However, Coast Guard officials caution that even if the channel is re-opened it will done in a "tapered fashion."

Coast Guard officials reported 46 outbound vessels and 47 inbound vessels are being held in queue for transit in the Port of Houston. The Port of Texas City has five inbound and three outbound vessels. Coast Guard officials said crews must first ensure that vessels can navigate oil free waterways so no further contamination occurs.

"Further, we'll have to assure that transit does not impact our clean up operations," said USCG Captain, Brian Penoyer.

An estimated 168,000 gallons of bunker fuel oil spilled into the waters of Galveston Bay and spread to ship channels and the Gulf of Mexico when a Liberian flagged vessel collided with a barge that was being towed in foggy conditions through the Texas City "Y", an area where three bodies of water meet near the Texas City Dike.

Coast Guard officials said the tow vessel and barge are owned by Houston based Kirby Inland Marine. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are working with the Coast Guard to determine exactly how the collision occurred.

"Visibility, the traffic, the meeting and crossing arrangements; all those will be pursued completely," said Penoyer.

The oil remaining on the damaged barge was off loaded to another vessel Monday. The partially sunken vessel was also righted and stabilized. Coast Guard officials said after a barrier is built around the damaged area and the vessel is cleaned it will be towed from the area of the accident.

Crews have deployed more than 70,000 feet of containment boom, but corralling the oil has proved difficult. Shifting winds and choppy current are pushing the oil; which is breaking up into smaller patches.

"We need to hit the oil hard and fast now before it disperses and thins out," said Penoyer.

While Penoyer said patches of oil and oil sheen has been spotted as far as 12 miles off shore, some of the oil also hit shorelines in the bays and along Galveston Island. State officials reported seven oiled birds were captured and cleaned, seven more died and eight oiled birds have been reported but not yet captured. State officials worry these numbers will rise over the coming days.

Wildlife affected by spill

Fisherman Geoff Roberts of Texas City said his fishing trip was cut short after he began reeling in oil on his lines.

"At first, the oil was going up the ship channel, then a couple of hours later it was coming through the back of the dike," said Roberts.

No public advisories were issued, but the Coast Guard encourages people not to come in contact with the oil.

The Coast Guard says it has received a few reports of wildlife injuries, and a wildlife rehabilitation center has been set up. As of Monday morning there have been three confirmed captured and three deceased birds, according to USCG.

The Houston Audubon Society estimates 60 birds have been found with varying degrees of oil on them.

The public is reminded to refrain from capturing any potentially affected wildlife and is urged to contact Wildlife Response Service at 888-384-2000.

Ferry service to reopen

Ferry service between Galveston and Bolivar will reopen Tuesday after having been suspended due to the incident. The Bolivar ferry will being running from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Tuesday. It will only run during daylight hours until further notice. The public can contact the Ferry Office for status updates at (409) 795-2230.

A claims number has been established for persons or businesses that may have questions in regard to impact by the incident. For claims, call 855-276-1275.

See photos of the oil spill and cleanup below: