Wed, Oct 06, 2010 - Page 7 News List

Texas waterway blocked by crash

NY Times News Service, HOUSTON, Texas

Oil tankers and cargo ships were lining up in the waters outside the Houston Ship Channel on Monday, as crews with a floating crane worked furiously to repair a damaged 91.4m-tall electrical tower that was blocking entry to one of the US’ largest ports, the US Coast Guard said.

At 6am on Sunday, a tugboat pushing three barges loaded with scrap metal went off course and crashed into the base of the metal tower, which sits on an island in the center of the channel near where it empties into Galveston Bay, Petty Officer Richard Brahm said.

The first barge cut through part of the tower’s base. The tower listed wildly to one side and ended up resting on the barge, its high-voltage lines sagging dangerously close to the water. The channel was effectively cut off to traffic.

CenterPoint Energy, which owns the power lines, brought in a giant crane on another barge on Monday. Crews of workmen were trying to hoist the wrecked tower up with the floating crane, known as Big John.

Thirty to 40 vessels use the channel daily to reach dozens of terminals at refineries, railheads and shipping companies that line the 40km-long waterway. The coast guard estimates that the channel handles about US$322 million a day in freight. By late Monday afternoon, 19 ships were anchored outside the port, waiting for it to open, and at least 12 ships were trapped at piers.

Still, it will be at least three days before the accident begins to take an economic toll, port officials said. Most of the refineries have at least a three-day supply of gasoline and distillates, because it is not uncommon for the channel to be closed for 48 hours due to bad weather or heavy fog. Pilots in the bay are well drilled on shepherding a backlog of ships into port once the closings are over.

“Right now, we don’t expect anything to be lost,” said Patrick Seeba, a project manager with the Greater Houston Port Bureau, a trade group. “It’s like sitting in traffic on the way to the grocery and you decide to turn around and go back tomorrow. You are still going to go to the grocery store.”

Large refineries owned by Valero Energy, Royal Dutch Shell, Pasadena Refining System and other companies could be affected by a long delay.

Seeba said the ships affected so far were carrying bulk loads, like grain, cement and steel, as well as oil. Much of the traffic in shipping containers was unhindered, since the biggest facilities for unloading containers are on Galveston Bay.

The cause of the accident is under investigation, Brahm said. The captain of the tugboat, the Safety Quest, has been interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol.

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