Crews mopping up oil spill in Galveston Bay

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by Associated Press & KHOU.com staff

khou.com

Posted on March 23, 2014 at 11:47 AM

Updated Sunday, Mar 23 at 11:01 PM

TEXAS CITY, Texas -- The cleanup of an unknown amount of thick, sticky oil that spilled into the Galveston Bay blocked traffic Sunday between the Gulf of Mexico and one of the world's busiest petrochemical transportation waterways, affecting all vessels, even cruise ships.

A barge carrying nearly a million gallons of marine fuel oil collided with a ship Saturday afternoon, springing a leak. Officials believe only one of the barge's tanks - which holds 168,000 gallons, was breached, though Coast Guard Petty Officer Andy Kendrick said Sunday it wasn't clear how much oil spilled.

Responding agencies operating in a Unified Command structure report that more than 69,000 feet of containment boom has now been deployed on waters surrounding the incident site and along sensitive shorelines in the area. An additional 141,000 feet of boom has been staged for possible deployment.

Crews were skimming oil out of the water and containment booms were brought in to protect environmentally sensitive areas of the Houston ship channel, Kendrick said. The ship channel is closed from the mouth of the Houston ship channel, between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, Coast Guard Lt. Sam Danus said.

"Unified command is aware of the situation and is communicating with the cruise ship companies," Danus said.

Officials report that the first recovery of oiled birds occurred on Sunday afternoon; fewer than 10 impacted birds were sighted and recovered for transfer to a wildlife rehabilitation facility established by the Unified Command. Protection of the environment remains a high priority and responders are working in tandem with Texas Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Wildlife Response Services to respond to new reports that should arise.

The Texas General Land Office has also deployed a bird rehabilitation trailer in the area for quick response to impacted wildlife.

The Texas City dike, a popular fishing spot that goes out into the Gulf for a few miles, is also closed. Lee Rilat, 58, owns Lee's Bait and Tackle, the last store before the access road to the dike, which was blocked by a police car on a breezy, overcast Sunday. If it weren't for the spill, Rilat's business would be hopping.

"This would be the first spring deal, the first real weekend for fishing," Rilat said. He says ships and barges have collided before, but this is the first time - at least this year - that someone has sprung a leak. His wife, Brenda Rilat, said sea fog was hanging over the bay Saturday.

Rilat, who's lived in the area most of his life, doesn't think the spill is too big of a deal.

"It'll be fine. Everything's going to be lovely. Mother Nature takes care of its own," he said.

The collision was still being investigated, the Coast Guard said.

The captain of the 585-foot ship, Summer Wind, reported the spill just after noon Saturday. Six crew members from the tow vessel, which was going from Texas City to Bolivar, were injured, the Coast Guard said.

Kirby Inland Marine, which owns the tow vessel and barge, is working with the Texas General Land Office and many other federal, state and nonprofit agencies to respond to the spill, The Coast Guard said. Tara Kilgore, an operations coordinator with Kirby Inland Marine, declined to comment Saturday.

Jim Suydam, spokesman for the Texas' General Land Office, described the type of oil the barge was carrying as "sticky, gooey, thick, tarry stuff."

"That stuff is terrible to have to clean up," he said.

Richard Gibbons, the conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society, said there is important shorebird habitat on both sides of the ship channel. One is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary just to the east, which Gibbons said attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats that are perfect foraging habitat.

"The timing really couldn't be much worse since we're approaching the peak shorebird migration season," Gibbons said. He added that tens of thousands of wintering birds remain in the area.

The Bolivar ferry remains closed to traffic, and a safety zone, established on Saturday to ensure the well-being of response workers and prevent the further spread of oil, has been extended from lighted buoy 40 to lighted buoy 3 on the Houston Ship Channel. This safety zone restricts the transit of vessels not involved in the response from entering the area. Coast Guard officials did allow two cruise ships to travel through the incident area by late afternoon to minimize inconvenience to the thousands of passengers aboard and limit economic impacts from the spill. However, neither vessel will be allowed to leave the port again until deemed safe to do so.

Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. Suydam said that spill spurred the creation of the General Land Office's Oil Spill and Prevention Division, which is funded by a tax on imported oil that the state legislature passed after the Valdez spill.

A claims number has been established for persons who may have questions in regard to personal impact by the incident. The number is 855-276-1275.

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