Crews working to ensure safety after ships collide in Houston Ship Channel

By Phil Archer - Reporter

LA PORTE, Texas - Federal, state and local agencies and emergency responders are working to ensure public safety after two ships collided in the Houston Ship Channel on Monday.

The Carla Maersk chemical tanker was outbound in the Ship Channel and the Conti Peridot bulk freighter was inbound around 12:33 p.m. when the collision occurred.

"This was a significant collision causing significant damage to both vessels," said Capt. Brian Penoyer with the U.S. Coast Guard.

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The Carla Maersk's port cargo tanks were damaged and leaked MTBE, which is a fuel additive in gasoline. The Carla Maersk was reportedly carrying 216,000 barrels of MTBE taken on at Texas Petro Chemical Plant, but the Coast Guard is unsure at this time how much chemical leaked.

The chemical, used to prevent a knocking noise in the engine, is flammable and smells like paint thinner, according to the EPA's website. It can cause dizziness, nausea and trouble breathing if inhaled.

"Although the chemical is shipped in liquid form, it rapidly volatilizes into the air and becomes a vapor. That vapor is immediately noticeable," said Penoyer. "You will smell this chemical long before you reach toxic levels."

A Coast Guard helicopter detected a narrow, 2-mile long sheen of MTBE coming from the ship Tuesday morning. The Coast Guard said the ship is no longer leaking and that the sheen is residual MTBE from the collision that does not represent a health hazard to humans. Investigators are still trying to determine what effect it may have on animal and plant life.

Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penover said Tuesday that it appears most of the MTBE that leaked from the ship into the water or vaporized in the air has dissappated.

"We have found, with the exception of the trace sheen coming from the damaged area no MTBE on the surface of the water and we've had no detectable concentrations of MTBE in the air in the shoreline communities since about midnight last night," Penover said.

Thousands of barrels of MTBE remain on board the Carla Maersk. Until it is removed, Penover says the ship can't be moved.

"People should not expect we'll be able to execute this salvage operation in minutes or hours," Penover said.

It could take days to offload the remaining MTBE. A portion of the ship channel from light 68 to the Fred Hartman Bridge remains closed and a "safety zone" has been set up in the waterway around Morgan's Point where air and water monitoring are underway.

Residents in the affected areas are urged to monitor local emergency notification systems for information on local impacts and instructions. Air monitoring is currently taking place throughout the area and is being facilitated by local jurisdictions. There are no signs of a public safety risk at this time.

La Porte police were restricting access to residential areas in Morgan's Point to residents Tuesday. Jane Leckbee, who had been ordered to shelter in place Monday along with other residents said there have been no problems.

"Not a big deal. They're getting it clean pretty good," Leckbee said.

The shelter-in-place order was lifted at 10 p.m. Monday.

Two dock workers were sent to the hospital due to the fumes after the collision. There is no word on their condition.

The crews from the National Transportation Safety Board are on the scene and will investigate for the next five to seven days. The investigators will be looking at steering, propulsion, weather conditions and maintenance records.

In a press briefing Tuesday, NTSB board member Earl Weener said,

"Is there anything I can say about cause at this point? The answer is no. We're just starting the fact gathering stage.

It usually takes months for the NTSB to reach a finding.

Crew members of the Carla Maersk are safe, the company said, and the vessel is anchored in the channel.

Maersk Group released a statement Monday that read in part, "Consideration for the environment is of high importance for the A.P. Moller - Maersk Group and we are making every effort to avoid environmental impact. We are working closely with the US Coast Guard."

The Conti Peridot was loaded with steel. The ship is also anchored in the channel but will be moved to the Port of Houston Authority's Turning Basin terminal, according to officials.

The Ship Channel remains closed to all traffic from light 86 to the Fred Hartman Bridge. There are 26 ships waiting to come into to Houston and 14 waiting to leave. The Coast Guard is working to help ensure that the remaining product in the ship is safely secured in order to begin reopening the ship channel.

A safety zone has been established from the Fred Hartman Bridge to light 86 and includes Goose Creek, Tabbs Bay, Cedar Bayou Channel and Barbours Cut.

An incident command post has been established at the City of La Porte Emergency Operations Center to further response efforts. A citizen hotline has been set up. You can call 281-470-0000.

This is the second collision the Houston Ship Channel in the last five days. On Thursday, a container ship and a chemical tanker collided. There was no pollution released into the water and there were no injuries.

Stay with Channel 2 News for updates on this developing story.

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