“TEXAS CITY — Traffic in the Houston Ship Channel, which ground to a halt for three days because of an oil spill, resumed Tuesday as authorities prepared for a new cleanup effort on the Matagorda Peninsula southwest of Galveston.
Crews on some 70 vessels worked furiously before weather worsened Tuesday to skim as much oil as possible remaining from a collision in the channel Saturday that poured as much as 168,000 gallons of thick fuel oil into Galveston Bay.
Enough oil had been cleared to allow ships to begin moving again through the section of the Ship Channel affected by the spill. Barges resumed their journeys on the Intracoastal Waterway.
The wind and current pushed a portion of the spill into the Gulf of Mexico, where it was about 10 miles off the coast and moving south, said Capt. Brian Penoyer, captain of the port for Houston/Galveston. The oil is expected to land as tar balls on the Matagorda Peninsula, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said.
Patterson said crews were arriving in Matagorda County in preparation for cleanup efforts.
Bad weather with swells as large as 9 feet in the Gulf was expected to make recovery operations difficult Wednesday, said Richard Arnhart, an official with the Texas General Land Office oil response team.
The major cleanup operation is expected to continue for at least several more days, and smaller cleanup efforts will likely continue for weeks, Penoyer said.
Effect on coastline
The oil so far has soiled about 15.5 miles of coastline as a result of the collision between the Liberian-flagged bulk vessel Summer Wind and a barge carrying 900,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel oil. Because of wind and currents, the areas stained with oil were limited to the Texas City Dike, a small area on the western tip of the Bolivar Peninsula, Pelican Island, the Port of Galveston and the eastern end of Galveston Island.
None of the oil has penetrated environmentally sensitive marshes so far, authorities said. Nine dead birds have been reported. Eight soiled birds still alive were moved to a rehabilitation center in Baytown.
Skimmers have scooped about 165,000 gallons of oil-and-seawater mixture and crews picked up 852 bags of oily debris and sand, but it’s hard to know exactly how much oil is in the mix, Penoyer said.
More than 71,000 feet of containment boom has been placed to protect sensitive areas, and 232,600 feet of boom is ready for use. Some of that boom surrounds the 1877 barque Elissa, the official Texas tall ship, in its berth at the Texas Maritime Museum in Galveston. Oil in Galveston Harbor forced the postponement of the ship’s first outing after two years of repairs, said W. Dwayne Jones, Galveston Historical Foundation executive director.
The oil is also soiling the environmentally sensitive Big Reef area on the eastern end of the island, a habitat for birds that have just begun a migration across the Gulf from Mexico into the U.S.
Unseasonably cold weather may have kept the oil from affecting two types of endangered turtles, green and Kemp’s ridley, said Kimberly Reich, director of the Trophic Ecology and Sea Turtle Biology Lab at Texas A&M University in Galveston. Green turtles, which all but vanished before making a comeback in Galveston Bay, typically feed near the Texas City Dike, and the Kemp’s ridley nesting season normally begins about this time of year. But few turtles have been seen in the area, and Reich believes the cold weather may be keeping them away.
A few tar balls appeared on Galveston beaches facing the Gulf of Mexico on Monday and were picked up quickly. Craig Brown, chairman of the Galveston Park Board, said Seawolf Park on Pelican Island remained closed, but the beaches most frequented by tourists were open.”
— Friends of the Wild Whoopers explained that portions of Matagorda Island is a part of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The Matagorda Island Unit of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is part of long chain of barrier islands that extend down the Texas coastline. This rugged landscape is host or home to many amazing wildlife species, including whooping cranes, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, reddish egrets, alligators and coyotes.