LA PORTE, Texas – Goods are being unloaded and commerce traded along the Houston Ship Channel, even though part of the waterway remained closed Wednesday amid cleanup efforts following a collision that spilled a flammable chemical.
About a 4-mile to 8-mile stretch of the ship channel is closed as crews deal with a gasoline additive that spilled after two 600-foot ships collided on Monday in foggy conditions. The closure means that ships in the Gulf of Mexico can’t come into the ship channel and vessels that had been set to leave are also stuck. The U.S. Coast Guard has said the cleanup effort and salvage operation could take at least several days to complete.
But the partial closure wasn’t stopping the economic activity that occurs daily on the ship channel, said Patrick Seeba, project director with the Greater Houston Port Bureau, a maritime industry trade organization.
Seeba couldn’t give an estimate of the partial closure’s economic impact but said it is “not quite as severe as you think.”
The Port of Houston, a major part of the ship channel, is home to the nation’s largest and one of the world’s largest petrochemical complexes. It typically handles about 70 ships per day, plus 300 to 400 tugboats and barges, and consistently ranks first in the nation in foreign waterborne tonnage, U.S. imports and U.S. export tonnage.
While one facility near the cleanup area — the Barbours Cut Container Terminal — was closed, another one south of the collision site, the Bayport Container Terminal, was open, allowing cargo to be offloaded and shipped out through trucks and pipelines, Seeba said.
Various cargo terminals, a grain elevator and a dry bulk export/import facility north of the cleanup are operating and it’s “business as usual” at the ports in Texas City and Galveston, located south of the ship channel, Seeba said.
“This is not an optimal place for such an incident, but business is still going on,” he said.
It’s not uncommon for operations to slow on the ship channel. Last week, fog closed it for several days.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s something we are pretty practiced at doing here on the port,” Seeba said.
The Coast Guard on Wednesday began efforts to remove the ship that carried the gasoline additive — methyl tert-butyl ether or MTBE. Work crews were set to first safely remove any remaining chemical from the ship’s cargo tanks before moving the vessel. It was unknown how long this would take. The other ship was moved to a dock on Tuesday.
Officials said workers have conducted more than 500 air and water tests, all of which showed no public health or environmental concerns. MTBE is highly flammable and can be dangerous to people if inhaled in high doses.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the accident is expected to take a year to complete.
NTSB board member Earl Weener said an initial review of communications between the two vessels indicated things were routine right up to the collision. He said the ships were travelling at 8 knots per hour, which is typical in the ship channel.
So far, there doesn’t appear to be any short-term environmental impacts from the chemical spill, as there have been no reports of fish kills or dead birds, said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation. The environmental group is still trying to determine any long-term impacts, he said.
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