Taking off

A U.S. Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter lifts off from the end of the Texas City Dike to resume reconnaissance duties in support of the Galveston Bay oil spill cleanup effort Wednesday.

GALVESTON — Oil response teams were mustering Wednesday in Port O’Connor in preparation for oil that could come ashore by midnight.

Port O’Connor sits at the mouth of Matagorda Bay, near the east end of the Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area, and is about 100 straight-line miles from where a wrecked barge in the Houston Ship Channel first began leaking thick, black oil into the Houston Ship Channel.

Since that day, tides and winds have pushed the substance out of the Houston Ship Channel then southwest down the coast, mostly staying away from coastal areas.

That was expected to change Wednesday evening, according to officials.

“We are prepared to protect Matagorda Bay, and remove any tarballs off Matagorda Island beaches should they come ashore,” Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said Wednesday. “This is where all our advance plans, our drills and our preparations really pay off.”

Patterson said 140 workers and 100,000 feet of boom had been sent south in anticipation of tarballs that could be washed ashore.

The National Weather Service said Wednesday that winds up to 25 mph began blowing from the southeast toward the Texas coastline.

Exactly how much oil might come ashore in that area was unclear, Suydam said.

One Matagorda County emergency management official said Wednesday that preparations were being hampered by choppy waves and strong winds.

“The booms I don’t even think would stand up out there because it’s so rough,” Matagorda County emergency management coordinator Doug Matthes said.

Since the spill began, responding agencies have tracked the direction of the oil using a combination of methods.

Coast Guard helicopters have been carrying specialists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who observe the size and direction of oil slicks. 

According to the Coast Guard’s Joint Information Center, responders have sent as many as six aircraft a day out to make observations during daylight hours. The overflights take up to as many as 30 hours a day.

Those observations are compared to computer models to help predict where a slick might head.

The models being used to predict the movement of the oil slick are being developed by the NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration in Seattle, Wash.

The information is sent across the country and gathered by a system unique to the Texas coast, known as the Texas Automated Buoy System or TABS.

The system was developed by scientists at Texas A&M University in the 1990s, after a series of serious oil spills led to a call for more advanced monitoring techniques. Before the system was created, oil spill responses were planned using information from previous spills. That was a problem.

“Historical data doesn’t work very well for predicting what’s going to happen,” said John Walpert, senior research associate at Texas A&M’s Geochemical and Environmental Research Group, which developed the buoy system.

The technology on the buoys measures, among other things, near-surface currents, water temperature, salinity, wave heights, wind speed, barometric pressure and humidity. Seven permanent buoys positioned between Sabine Pass and Port Isabel are used in conjunction with movable buoys that can be placed in a moving slick.

“The idea behind the entire system is to provide the managers with the proper information so they can deploy the resources where they need to go and lessen the impact of the oil,” Walpert said.

Since it first launched in 1995, TABS has been used to help direct responses more than 50 times. Walpert called it the most advanced system of its kind in the United States.

“There are different ocean observing systems around the country, but none were developed specifically with coastal protection in mind,” Walpert said. “This one was.”


Contact reporter John Wayne Ferguson at 409-683-5226 or john.ferguson@galvnews.com.


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