A barge carrying 924,000 gallons of thick marine shipping oil collided with a ship near the Texas City dike on Saturday afternoon, spilling up to 168,000 gallons and forcing closures on the waterway.
“This is an extremely serious spill,” Capt. Brian Penoyer of the U.S. Coast Guard told the Houston Chronicle. “It is a persistent oil.”
The barge was being towed from Texas City to Bolivar carrying a substance called RMG 380, “a special bunker fuel oil often used in shipping that doesn’t evaporate easily.” As of 10 p.m. Saturday, the spill had not been contained and the Coast Guard was still investigating the collision. Thus far, Texas City Emergency Management said the dike and all parks on the water are closed until further notice and part of the Houston ship channel was closed to traffic, according to the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard “said officials were closely monitoring the spill area for health-threatening hydrogen sulfide and other dangerous gases that can be emitted by the spill,” the Houston Chronicle reported. Dangerous concentrations of the gases have not been detected but two of the six crew members on the tug were treated for exposure to fumes, Texas City Homeland Security Director Bruce Clawson told the Chronicle. Exposure to RMG 380 may cause respiratory tract, eye and skin irritation and the “vapor may contain hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas which can be harmful or fatal if inhaled,” according to the Material Safety Data Sheet.
“That stuff is terrible to have to clean up,” Jim Suydam, spokesman for the Texas General Land Office, told the Associated Press. Suydam described the type of oil the barge was carrying as “sticky, gooey, thick, tarry stuff.”
The spill also threatens key bird habitat on both sides of the Houston ship channel just as peak shorebird migration season approaches. Richard Gibbons, conservation director with the Houston Audubon Society, told ABC13 that the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary just to the east attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to its shallow mud flats. As the birds prepare for migration, Gibbons said “the timing really couldn’t be much worse.”
Geoff Roberts, who was out fishing Saturday, told ABC13 he “noticed a layer of oil caked on” the side of his boat and on his fishing reel. “They even told us don’t eat any fish you catch today,” Roberts said.
Thousands of feet of containment boom were placed around the partially submerged barge Saturday night, as well as at the ecologically critical Big Reef at the end of Galveston Island and Little Pelican Island. Sunday, the Coast Guard and cleanup crews will work to assess just how much of the oil leaked and where it moved overnight, and to begin the process of transferring the oil that remains on the barge, potentially hindered by overcast conditions and rain.