24 March 2014, 12:22

US Texas oil spill blocks Houston ship Channel, threatens environment

US Texas oil spill blocks Houston ship Channel, threatens environment

The closure of major US state of Texas shipping channels, the Houston, that deliver crude to more than a tenth of the nation's refining capacity was set to run into a third day and could continue through the week as crews were still working on Sunday night to clean up after an oil spill. 

Oil spilled from a barge in Galveston Bay in Texas, blocking the busy Houston Ship Channel and threatening birds at a nearby wildlife sanctuary, officials and environmentalists said.

US Coast Guard officials said as much as 168,000 gallons of oil might have spilled.

The Houston Ship Channel remains closed as about 24 vessels worked to clean up a 4,000-barrel fuel oil spill following a collision during the weekend.

A barge containing about 22,000 barrels (924,000 gallons) of ship fuel partially sank near Texas City, Texas, Cam Olivieri, a spokesman for the Galveston County Emergency Management agency, said in a telephone interview yesterday. The barge, which was being towed by the vessel Miss Susan to Bolivar, was struck by the 585-foot bulk carrier Summer Wind on March 22, according to the US Coast Guard.

The 84-kilometer shipping lane is a key transit route for processed fuels and chemical feedstock from refineries along the Gulf Coast. A US shale oil and natural gas boom has contributed to the channel’s traffic. Fuel still inside the barge’s damaged tank has been transferred.

Michael Lambert, spokesman for the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management, called it a "significant spill. 

"The real issue is that it’s in the ship channel, near environmentally sensitive areas. So there’s an economic impact and an environmental impact," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Crews were skimming oil and laying absorbent booms to contain the spread of the spill, which occurred in the channel that runs between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, Lambert said.

Coast Guard Port Capt. Brian Penoyer said at a Sunday news briefing that oil had been spotted a dozen miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

He said the spill blocked about about 60 vessels, including cruise ships, from using the channel.

Penoyer said all of the remaining oil had been removed from the damaged barge and the barge had been taken out of the channel. He did not say when the channel would reopen.

The last major spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the Deepwater Horizon, or BP oil spill, which dumped 210 million gallons four years ago.

"On the scale of the Valdez, this is not even a blip. It’s a lot of oil, but it’s not a Valdez or a Deepwater Horizon," Lambert said.

Richard Gibbons, conservation director for the Houston Audubon Society, said he had already received reports and photographs of oiled birds at the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary near the spill. Staff there reported smelling the oil on shore, but had yet to spot the oily sheen on the water.

Oiled birds that have flown into the sanctuary, Gibbons said, include ruddy turnstones, laughing gulls and American white pelicans, and some shore birds have also appeared with oil — a sign the oil has made it to shore.

The sanctuary attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds annually to its shallow mud flats. Gibbons said he was working with state officials responding to the spill to ensure the environmental effects are limited.

"We just want to make sure the boom is going in where it needs to be," he said.

A spokesman for emergency responders said they were investigating an unconfirmed report of an oiled bird on Eagle Point, which is not in the sanctuary.

Tom Harvey, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said, "There could be hundreds or thousands of birds of various species in the area affected by the spill."

On Sunday, he said, a department scientist involved in spill response recovered a loon and a duck, "both covered with sticky black oil," from the East Beach area of Galveston facing the channel.

Serious spill or not, it has already made an environmental impact on the marine wildlife. 

Voice of Russia, Reuters, LA Times

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