Tue, Mar 25, 2014 - Page 15 News List

Vital US oil tanker routes closed amid spill cleanup

Reuters, TEXAS CITY, Texas

The closure of major Texas shipping channels that deliver crude oil to more than a 10th of the US’ refining capacity was set to run into a third day and could continue through the week as crews were still working on Sunday night to clean up after an oil spill.

The Houston Ship Channel, which allows oil barges and cargo ships to sail from the Gulf Coast to refiners and terminals further inland, was shut on Saturday following a collision between a Kirby Inland Marine oil barge and a cargo ship, spilling about 4,000 barrels, or 636,000 liters, of residual fuel oil.

A warning to mariners issued by the US Coast Guard on Sunday said portions of the Houston Ship Channel and its offshoots to Texas City and Galveston, Texas, along with a portion of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway could be shut through Saturday or longer depending on the requirements of the cleanup. Kirby Inland Marine is operated by Kirby Corp.

There were signs of progress on Sunday. US Coast Guard Captain Brian Penoyer said cleanup crews have pumped all remaining fuel oil from the barge, which is partially sunken near the entrance to the channel.

The barge has been refloated and moved to a different position near the site of the collision in the channel.

The channel will remain shut “until clean water is assured,” Penoyer told reporters at a news conference in Texas City.

A local official said the channel was expected to be shut well into yesterday.

The outage has yet to impact operations at Exxon Mobil Corp’s 560,500 barrel-per-day (bpd) refinery in Baytown, Texas, the US’ second-largest, company spokesman Nicolas Scinta said.

Representatives for seven other refineries in Houston and Texas City, Texas, did not reply to requests for information about possible reductions in production.

A Kirby-operated barge carrying fuel oil collided with a ship carrying rice at nearly the same location on March 14. In that accident, the cargo ship was damaged, but no fuel oil was spilled.

The Ship Channel is a 17m deep pathway for barges and deep-draft ships cut into the floor of Galveston Bay, which averages 6m in depth.

The spill is far smaller than that by the Exxon Valdez tanker, which struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. A total of 41 million liters of heavy black crude oil were estimated to have been released by the Exxon Valdez.

In contrast, only one tank on the barge was ripped open by the collision with the cargo ship in the Houston Channel on Saturday, releasing an estimated 636,000 liters.

Wildlife Response Services, a Texas-based wildlife rehabilitation service, is helping affected birds and marine life.

Fewer than 10 birds covered with oiled have been sighted and brought in for recovery, the US Coast Guard said.

As of Sunday evening, 24 vessels are skimming from the waterway, the US Coast Guard said. More that 21km of floating barriers have been deployed to contain the spill. Another 43km of barriers are on standby for use if needed.

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