Oil spill shuts down busy Gulf waterway as cleanup continues

Crews boom and skim for heavy crude as environmental groups attempt to rescue wildlife affected by accident

A black sticky oily substance is shown along the beach at the Texas City Dike near the barge spill cleanup site Sunday, March 23, 2014. Officials say the material is consistent with how oil could appear when it impacts beaches.
Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle/AP

The canal linking the biggest petrochemical port in the United States to the Gulf of Mexico remained closed on Sunday as workers attempted to contain a spill that occurred when a barge carrying almost 1 million gallons of thick, sticky oil collided with a ship near Houston.

Since the collision on Saturday, the barge has leaked an unknown amount of bunker oil — a tarry, heavy fuel used in Marine vessels — into the Houston Shipping Channel, though officials have said their maximum estimate is 168,000 gallons.

The channel remained shut Monday to contain the environmental damage and prevent additional collisions, according to the Coast Guard, which told The Associated Press there was no timetable in place to reopen the key port as it continued to call in containment facilities. Earlier, the Coast Guard told Reuters the port could be closed through March 29 or longer.

Eight refineries accounting for 12 percent of U.S. refining capacity have been cut off from crude oil tankers along the 53-mile waterway. The Port of Houston is the second largest energy complex in the world.

Among the concerns raised by the spill are ensuring complete containment and cleanup, health and safety issues for nearby communities and effects on nearby wildlife.

“The barge is now stabilized, and the remaining oil will be transferred off to another barge so the vessel can be moved into a shipyard,” Greg Beuerman, spokesman for the Unified Command Joint Information Center, told Al Jazeera. The center is a group of about a dozen local, state, federal and private groups working on the spill response.

Any oil left in the ruptured compartment was “lightered" off to another vessel, according to Beuerman. The cleanup effort has utilized at least 141,000 feet of boom (PDF) as of 2 p.m. Sunday, according to Beuerman. Boom is a temporary floating barrier that keeps the spilled oil in a confined area.

Some environmentalists have warned that the type of oil spilled could be more difficult to contain as it is heavier than conventional oil and may sink. The spilled oil, which is partially refined, is very thick and viscous.

It's still considered dirty by industry standards, but is allowed to be burned on ships, Neil Carman, Clean Air program director for the Sierra Club, told Al Jazeera.

Beuerman disagreed, and told Al Jazeera, “even though it’s heavier oil, it’s still sort of a surface product, and that doesn’t imply that it’s sinking to the bottom of the channel.”

“Skimming is an additional component of the cleanup. Since yesterday they’ve been out there to skim the oil and that can be done at various levels, below the surface too,” Beuerman said.

No dispersants, like the controversial corexit that was used in BP’s cleanup efforts in the Gulf, have been asked for or approved, Beuerman said.

Authorities have been monitoring the air near the spill since the beginning of the response effort and the levels of emissions are low, with no concerns for off-site impact.

The biggest concern is hydrogen sulfide. At low concentrations, short-term exposures to hydrogen sulfide can cause nausea, watering of the eyes, headaches and airway problems. For prolonged periods or at high concentrations, it can cause throat irritation, respiratory tract irritation, drowsiness, loss of smell, and death, according to U.S. Department of Labor.

“The levels of emissions are low. We’ll continue to monitor and make sure that’s the case,” Beuerman said. “We’ve set up an aggressive safety zone to limit vessel traffic through the area.”

Carman said without knowing the exact levels of the toxic chemical, it's hard to assess the threat. The Joint Command center told Al Jazeera Sunday night they didn't have the exact measurements, but said they don't allow the cleanup crew to work in unsafe conditions and they were out in the spill zone without masks.

Carman said hydrogen sulfide can be lethal in very small concentrations, and "if it didn't kill you, it could knock you out, or give you a heart attack."

Meanwhile, environmental groups like Texas Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and a Texas non-profit called Wildlife Response Services have been responding to reports of impacted bird life.

“We’ve had a small number of confirmed reports of impacted birds,” Beuerman said. “WRS has rehabilitation trailers on various sites around the area for those birds to be brought in and treated.”

The Houston Audubon Society said there are important shorebird habitats on both sides of the shipping channel. In addition to the tens of thousands of wintering birds that remain in the area, it is approaching peak shorebird migration season.


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