TEXAS CITY, Texas – The Coast Guard aimed to reopen one of the nation's busiest seaports Monday, two days after a collision between a barge and a ship caused nearly 170,000 gallons of tar-like oil to spill into the waters south of Houston.
The closure of the Houston Ship Channel has forced more than 80 ships to wait to enter or leave the bay. Coast Guard Warrant Officer Kimberly Smith said the agency's goal was to reopen the channel at some point Monday, but she did not know the precise timing.
Authorities are still trying to determine how much oil spilled Saturday, when a barge carrying about 900,000 gallons collided with a ship. Initial estimates were that as much as a fifth of the barge's cargo spilled.
By Sunday, oil had been detected 12 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty-four vessels were working to skim the spilled fuel and deploy containment booms.
Environmental groups said the spill occurred at an especially sensitive time and place. The channel in Texas City, about 45 miles southeast of Houston, has shorebird habitat on both sides, and tens of thousands of wintering birds are still in the area.
"The timing really couldn't be much worse since we're approaching the peak shorebird migration season," said Richard Gibbons, conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society.
Just to the east is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, which attracts 50,000 to 70,000 birds to shallow mud flats that are perfect foraging habitat.
Fewer than 10 oiled birds had been found and sent to a wildlife rehabilitation center as of Sunday afternoon, the Coast Guard said. The Texas General Land Office sent a bird-rehabilitation trailer to the area.
Draining the remaining oil from the barge and transferring it to other vessels eliminated the risk of additional spillage, said Capt. Brian Penoyer, commander of the Coast Guard at Houston-Galveston.
Nearly 400 people joined a fleet of oil-retrieving skimmers and other vessels in deploying some 60,000 feet of containment booms around environmentally sensitive areas.
Some black, tar-like globs, along with a dark line of a sticky, oily substance, were seen along the shoreline of the Texas City dike, a 5-mile jetty that juts into Galveston Bay across from a tip of Galveston Island.
Jim Guidry, executive vice president of Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine Corp., which owned the barge, said the company — the nation's largest operator of inland barges — was taking responsibility for the cleanup costs.
"We're very concerned. We're focused on cleaning up," he said.
The damaged barge has been moved to a shipyard, according Texas Gov. Rick Perry's office.
The spill also suspended state-operated ferry service between Galveston and Port Bolivar, affecting thousands of travelers.
Two cruise ships were allowed to travel through the spill area "to minimize inconvenience" to thousands of passengers and limit the spill's economic effects, the Coast Guard said.
The channel, part of the Port of Houston, typically handles as many as 80 vessels daily.
If the bottleneck of vessels eases in a day or so, fuel prices are unlikely to change much. But a more prolonged closure could raise prices briefly, said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Jim Ritterbusch and Associates in Chicago.
The contents of the barge's torn tank, equal to about 4,000 barrels, were lost or displaced into other vacant areas of the barge. Penoyer said currents, tides and wind were scattering the spill.
"Containment was never a possibility in this case," he said.
The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are still investigating.
"It will take quite a bit of time, given the complexity of the vessels and a very busy waterway," Penoyer said.
Also closed was the Texas City dike, a popular fishing spot that extends into the Gulf for a few miles.
Lee Rilat, owner of Lee's Bait and Tackle, the last store before the access road to the dike, said if it weren't for the spill, his business would be hopping. Instead, the access road was blocked by a police car on a breezy, overcast Sunday.
"This would be the first spring deal, the first real weekend for fishing," he said.
The spill site is 700 yards offshore from the Texas City dike. A crane and several small boats could be seen at the cleanup site, and dozens of trucks were at a staging area along the beach.