A barge carrying nearly a million gallons of especially thick, sticky oil collided with a ship in Galveston Bay on Saturday, leaking an unknown amount of the fuel into the popular bird habitat as the peak of the migratory shorebird season was approaching.
Booms were brought in to try to contain the spill, which the Coast Guard said was reported at around 12:30 p.m. by the captain of the 585-foot ship, Summer Wind. Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Kristopher Kidd said the spill hadn't been contained as of 10 p.m., and that the collision was still being investigated.
The ship collided with a barge carrying 924,000 gallons of marine fuel oil, also known as special bunker, that was being towed by the vessel Miss Susan, the Coast Guard said. It didn't give an estimate of how much fuel had spilled into the bay, but there was a visible sheen of oil at the scene.
Officials believe only one of the barge's tanks was breached, but that tank had a capacity of 168,000 gallons.
"A large amount of that has been discharged," Kidd said. He said a plan was being developed to remove the remaining oil from the barge, but the removal had not begun.
The barge was resting on the bottom of the channel, with part of it submerged. He said boom was being set up in the water to protect environmentally-sensitive areas and that people would be working through the night with infrared cameras to locate and skim the oil.
The barge was being towed from Texas City to Bolivar at the time. The Coast Guard said that Kirby Inland Marine, which owns the tow vessel and barge, was working with it and the Texas General Land Office at the scene.
The Coast Guard said six crew members from the tow vessel were in stable condition, but it offered no details about their injuries.
Jim Suydam, spokesman for the General Land Office, described the type of oil the barge was carrying as "sticky, gooey, thick, tarry stuff."
"That stuff is terrible to have to clean up," he said.
Mild weather and calm water seemed to help containment efforts, but stormy weather was forecast for the area on Sunday. Suydam said almost every private cleanup outfit in the area was out there helping out under the coordination of the Coast Guard and General Land Office.
Bruce Clawson, the director of the Texas City Homeland Security, told The Daily News in Galveston that the barge sank, but that there is no danger to the community, which is about 40 miles southeast of downtown Houston. Suydam said he could not confirm whether the barge sank.
Tara Kilgore, an operations coordinator with Kirby Inland Marine, declined to comment Saturday.
On its Facebook page, Texas City Emergency Management said the dike and all parks on the water are closed until further notice. And the Coast Guard said that part of the Houston ship channel was closed to traffic.
Richard Gibbons, the conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society, said there is very important shorebird habitat on both sides of the Houston ship channel.
Audubon has the internationally-recognized Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary just to the east, which Gibbons said attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats that are perfect foraging habitat. He did not know how much oil had been spilled, but said authorities were aware of the sanctuaries and had practiced using containment booms in the past.
"The timing really couldn't be much worse since we're approaching the peak shorebird migration season," Gibbons said. He added that tens of thousands of wintering birds remain in the area.
Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. Suydam said that spill spurred the creation of the General Land Office's Oil Spill and Prevention Division, which is funded by a tax on imported oil that the state legislature passed after the Valdez spill. The division does extensive response planning including pre-positioned equipment along the Texas coast.