TEXAS CITY — A collision between a barge and a ship Saturday near the Texas City Dike spilled 160,000 gallons of heavy oil into Galveston Bay.
The accident forced authorities to evacuate the dike and surrounding areas — and to close the Houston Ship Channel.
Authorities also suspended operations of the ferry between Galveston and Port Bolivar. Traffic in and out of the ports of Texas City and Galveston was also suspended.
The barge was carrying about 924,000 gallons of bunker oil, according to a report from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer said late Saturday that 160,000 gallons, or 3,800 barrels, of the oil leaked from the barge into the bay.
“This is an extremely serious spill,” he said. “This is a persistent oil. It’s a large quantity. It will spread. People should be aware of that.”
Bunker oil or bunker fuel is a heavy crude and highly polluting oil that also is referred to bottom of the barrel oil. Penoyer said the oil does not evaporate quickly and the cleanup would take several days.
The oil had spread far enough to force the ferry to suspend operations late Saturday.
David Popoff, Galveston County emergency management coordinator, said peninsula residents were warned two hours before shutdown of the ferry to take alternate routes.
The two vessels collided about 12:30 p.m. at the intersection of the Texas Ship Channel, the Intracoastal Waterway and Houston Ship Channel. Coast Guard officials declined to say whether one vessel struck the other, saying the investigation was in its early stages. They would not say whether fog contributed to the accident.
According to a report from the Coast Guard, the barge was one of two being towed by the tugboat Miss Susan from Texas City to the Bolivar Peninsula. Both barges were carrying bunker oil.
The ship was a 585-foot bulk carrier named the Summer Wind. After the collision, the ship turned around and berthed at an anchorage at the Bolivar Peninsula. It remained there late Saturday.
Penoyer said officials were working to stop the leak, contain the spilled oil, secure any more oil on the barge and protect environmentally sensitive areas.
That process includes removing undamaged tanks from the barge, which was disabled but was not sinking, Penoyer said.
Coast Guard officials, working with state and local officials, immediately activated a response plan. Booms were deployed to contain the oil and to shield environmentally sensitive areas, such as Little Pelican Island.
Jim Guidry, executive vice president of Kirby Inland Marine, the company that owns the barges and the tugboat, said all crew aboard the barge were accounted for. Two crew members were taken to Mainland Medical Center as a precaution.
Guidry said his company was not taking the incident or the cleanup lightly.
“As a citizen and a resident of the Bay Area, we are very concerned about the incident, and concerned about the effective cleanup of the environment ... around the bay,” he said.
As a precaution and to help with the cleanup, police evacuated the dike, levee and Bay Street Park. The closures were to allow easier access for cleanup crews, Bruce Clawson, Texas City’s homeland security director, said.
Penoyer said state and local officials would monitor air quality for several days as a precaution.
Among those evacuated was Phil Midler, co-owner of XL Kites in Texas City and one of the organizers of the 2014 GBCA Rib Regatta, a kiteboarding event scheduled for Saturday on the levee. He and several kiteboarders had been waiting for the wind to kick up for most of the day.
Midler said around midday the wind finally cooperated and his fellow kiteboarders were ready. Then the wind brought the bad news.
“We smelled it,” he said. “It almost smelled like exhaust fumes, like when you open a tank of oil or gas.”
Being a kiteboarder, Midler knows a lot about wind. And the direction of the wind told him that if something was wrong, it was in the bay.
“We had heard that they had closed the dike,” he said. “But the wind was from the east, so I knew it was something in the ship channel because of the direction of the wind.”
Thirty minutes later, police began evacuating the levee where the regatta was headquartered.
By early evening, the entrance to the dike and the levee remained closed. But a steady stream of semitrailers and trucks carrying oil booms, mobile lighting towers, boats and heavy equipment rolled down to the end of the dike, where cleanup efforts were centered.
The closing of the ship channel also delayed shipping traffic in and out of the Port of Galveston including the return of two cruise ships, which were scheduled to arrive in Galveston on Saturday, Popoff said.
The ships remained at sea Sunday morning and it was unclear when they were return to the Port of Galveston. A Princess Cruise ship at Bayport terminal near Seabrook also was stuck in port.
Traffic in and out of the Port of Texas City was also suspended, Clawson said.
A statement from the Texas City Emergency Management Department said the dike and all parks along the waterfront will be closed until further notice.
Popoff also cautioned that anyone who finds oil-covered birds to not touch them. Instead, call 888-384-2000 and wildlife rescue personnel will be deployed.