TEXAS CITY — Limited shipping traffic in the Houston and Texas City ship channels and the Intracoastal Waterway resumed Tuesday.
The waterways were closed to vessel traffic since a barge carrying heavy fuel oil collided with a ship and leaked more than 168,000 gallons of the oil on Saturday.
The forced closures stranded billions of dollars in cargo — including petrochemical products — at sea or in port.
“Commerce is moving,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer, the head of the spill response command.
The resumption of limited shipping traffic came about 72 hours after the barge and ship collided.
“The cleanup operations’ progress is to the point that there is minimal danger of contamination to the commercial maritime traffic and allowing limited transit during daylight hours,” Penoyer said.
Penoyer said with approaching bad weather, Tuesday was a primary day to capture as much oil as possible. As of Tuesday morning, the Coast Guard estimated it had collected more than 164,000 gallons of oil and water mixture.
Restrictions on travel
Vessel traffic will be limited to daylight hours only, and each ship or barge making its way through the channels would be monitored for any oil
A vessel decontamination plan was implemented so that any vessels that are “oiled” are cleaned off, Penoyer said.
In some areas along the channel, the vessels must run very slow in what is called a “dead slow,” Texas City Emergency Management Coordinator Bruce Clawson said.
Dead slow has a ship going as slow as it can without losing the ability for the vessel to respond to changes in direction.
Any vessel traffic initially allowed to head into or leave port will be prioritized at first, Clawson said. The individual ports determined that priority list, Penoyer said.
Earlier in the day, the Coast Guard allowed the Carnival Magic cruise ship to leave the Port of Galveston.
With more than 90 ships stuck in the ship channels or at port, it will be a while before regular traffic can resume when the restrictions are lifted, Penoyer said.
He said on a normal day after an extended weather-forced closure, it takes up to three days to get shipping lane traffic back to normal.
Texas City plants ‘close to being in bad shape’
The reopening of shipping lanes couldn’t have come at a better time, Clawson said.
“Many of our facilities were starting to hurt,” Clawson said. “All of our oil refineries were at what they call in the margin zones, they were close to being in bad shape (to supply and send product out by ship.)
“If this lasted another day, all of them would have been in bad shape.”
In particular, Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, the nation’s fourth largest oil refinery, needed to get ships moving again, Clawson said.
A barge carrying critical supplies for that refinery was allowed to move through the channel and turned out to be a “test vessel,” to see if shipping would be a risk of spreading the oil into sensitive areas.
Marathon Petroleum spokeswoman Angelia Graves said the company does not comment on operations at its facilities. Marathon has two refineries in Texas City.
“Some shipments have been delayed but our plans and operating discipline have helped us maintain production levels,” Dow Chemical spokeswoman Tracie Copeland said of its Texas City chemical plant.
The company’s logistics team worked with customers and suppliers to minimize the effect of the lack of shipping, Copeland said.
Bill Day of Valero, which has a Texas City refinery, said his company also doesn’t comment on such things, but “I can say that this is not the first time the refineries along the ship channel have experienced a temporary closure.”
NuStar Energy, which operates a terminal in the Port of Texas City, said two of its vessels were stuck at port.
Still, the lack of shipping had little affect on operations.
“We are working with our customers to reschedule outbound and inbound deliveries once the port is reopened,” NuStar Texas City Manager Bill Tyler said.
“We expect minimal financial impact since we will be able to resume waterborne deliveries to and from our customers once the port reopens.”
Other petrochemical facilities in Texas City did not respond to The Daily News.
Ferry running again
After a limited run on Monday, ferry service between Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula also resumed early Tuesday morning.
The ferries made six roundtrips between 4:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Monday.
Ferry service is still limited to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the time being.
The first ferry of the day Tuesday, the Robert H. Dedman, boarded about 6:30 a.m. and took off a few minutes later. The Ray Stoker Jr. left the ferry landing not long after.
Signs driving onto the ferry from Galveston warned motorists about possible oil-filled spray coming up as the ferry made its way between the island and peninsula. The signs also instructed passengers to remain in their cars.
As vehicle’s loaded the ferry, crews kept them back from the very front of the boats. They also didn’t fully enforce the stay-in-your-car rule because a few people got out of their cars to take in the views, including a very nice sunrise.
Water along the route appeared clean.
Danny Perez, a Texas Department of Transportation spokesman, said the three ferries running made 23 roundtrips as of 3:15 p.m. Tuesday.
Barge set for repairs
Barge owner Kirby Inland Marine’s Vice President Jim Guidry said the damaged barge had been decontaminated and prepped for towing to a repair facility in Houston.
He said he expected the barge to be taken to the facility sometime today.
Guidrys company is footing the bill for all of the cleanup costs and set up a claims phone number to collect information from businesses and individuals who may have been harmed by the spill.
Under federal law, because the fuel oil came from the Kirby barge, the company is labeled the “responsible party.”
Texas General Land Office Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose agency oversees the state response to the spill, said that doesn’t mean Kirby is at fault.
An ongoing investigation by the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board will determine who is at fault in the accident.
Patterson praised Kirby for stepping up and said the company called him on his mobile phone within minutes of the collision with a Greek-owned cargo ship.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who came to Texas City to check on the spill response, praised the coordination of city, county, state and federal resources.
“But for the oil, this is a model exercise,” Dewhurst said.
In fact, Dewhurst and Galveston County Emergency Management Coordinator David Popoff confirmed that a live drill modeled to the similar situation that occurred during the weekend was planned for Saturday.
Popoff said the drill was to play out two vessels colliding at the Texas City Y, which is the intersection of the Houston and Texas City Ship Channels and Intracoastal Waterway, followed by a massive leak.
He said because of the real-life response, that drill has since been canceled and instead a debriefing of this response would take its place.
County Judge Mark Henry said he met with Penoyer five weeks ago to review oil spill response plans and terms in preparation for the drill.
Popoff called Saturday’s collision his “worst-case fear,” and that is why the drill was planned.
Photo Editor Jennifer Reynolds and Reporter Christopher Smith Gonzalez contributed to this report.
Contact Mainland Editor T.J. Aulds at 409-683-5334 or email@example.com.
At a glance
- 18.9 miles: Total nonconsecutive shoreline impacted
- 175,098: Recovered gallons of oily-water
- 1,799: Recovered bags of solid-waste bags
- 18,480: Total gallons of oil evaporated
- 2,100 gallons: Natural dispersion rate of oil
- 69,268 feet: Total containment boom deployed
- 253,300 feet: Total containment boom staged
- 5,400 feet: Additional containment boom ordered
- 70: Response vessels assigned
- 940: Total personnel in the field
- 324: Total personnel in the Incident Command Post
source: Unified Command
Claims line for those affected by spill: 855-276-1275
To report wildlife injured by spill: 888-384-2000
For updates on ferry status: 409-795-2230