Loud, cacophonous booms sound across the Houston Ship Channel. It’s to keep the birds away.
The aftermath of the collision between a ship and a barge carrying up to 170,000 gallons of “sticky, gooey, thick, tarry” bunker fuel oil is certain to have wide-ranging economic and ecological consequences for one of the nation’s busiest seaports and “coastal treasure.” That’s what the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality calls Galveston Bay — “one of the state’s most valuable recreational, economic, and environmental assets.”
The spill shut down the busy channel for three days, but officials said that enough progress had been made on the cleanup that commercial maritime traffic could begin again. Shipping traffic, vessel by vessel, could start to pass through the Channel as of Tuesday afternoon during daylight hours. Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer called it an “important accomplishment for every person working this response,” according to the AP. It will take up to three days for transit to come back to normal.
Coast Guard Lt. Sam Danus said that there were three priorities: oil spill recovery, restarting local ferries, and “facilitating commerce, obviously with Houston being one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world.” Not necessarily in that order, however.
Many of those ships are traveling to and from key petroleum refineries — the Port of Houston is the second largest petrochemical complex in the world. Some refineries were cutting back production levels because of slowed traffic caused by the oil spill.
On Monday morning, at least 81 vessels were waiting to pass through the Houston Ship Channel while crews working round the clock struggled to get the oil spill contained and cleaned. By Tuesday, the number of ships grew to over 100. The channel normally handles over 400 ships, from tugboats to barges to much larger shipping vessels.
In the next 24 hours, the oil will continue to spread through the channel into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will sink, disperse, be collected, or form into tar balls that will wash up on beaches for what could be years. On Monday night, officials said that not all the oil was doing that — some was following the southwest current along Galveston Island, which means a more difficult cleanup effort. Galveston Island is a popular tourist destination.
Tourist beaches on Galveston Island began getting inundated with tar balls on Monday, according to Galveston’s emergency management coordinator. Businesses that rely on spring break visitors were worried about cancellations.
Because two nature parks on opposite sides of the channel have seen oil, and this time of year is when tens of thousands of birds winter in the area, responders have tried to scare the birds away with cannon booms so they do not come in contact with the oil. Coast Guard Petty Officer Andy Kendrick told the AP that ten birds had died as a result of the spill already and response crews had set up four rehabilitation hospitals in the area. Over 50 birds have needed treatment, and according to the Wall Street Journal, responders have observed hundreds of oily birds near the site.
This video from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department shows first-hand the task that faces cleanup crews.
There is some room for optimism. Only one of the barge’s holding tanks broke open, meaning a spill of around 170,000 gallons rather than close to a million. And the National Audubon Society found many birds that had some oil on them, but none that were completely covered. However the effects on the food chain could cause more long-term damage to wildlife populations. This type of oil is heavy and sticky, meaning much of it will sink, staying in the marine environment far longer than evaporative gasoline.
The barge was owned by Kirby Inland Marine Corp., which has confirmed it would pay for the cleanup. The company is the biggest inland barge operator in the country.
According to Media Matters, talking heads on Fox Business used the incident to argue for the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, evidently forgetting that the pipeline could bring increased boat traffic exporting tar sands oil products right through the Houston Ship Canal.
Scott Hickman has a business in Galveston Bay chartering boats, and described to the Texas Tribune how you can see the oil from shore, and smell it easily. His business could lose thousands of dollars a day during spring break due to the spill.
“This is really, really the worst stuff you can dump in the water.”