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The Houston Ship Channel Is Still Closed

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On Saturday, a barge containing close to a million gallons of oil collided with a ship holding another 168,000 gallons in Galveston Bay. The result has been another massive oil spill in a Gulf that’s still seeing severe fish abnormalities after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil leak—and a traffic jam in the Houston Ship Channel that’s got one of the country’s busiest ports slowed way down.

At the moment, there are over a hundred ships stuck at the port—48 outbound and 54 inbound vessels—waiting for the opportunity to continue on their journey. That’s a significant problem at a port that’s vital to the nation’s economy. This comes, coincidentally, right around the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster. 

Let’s take a second to explore what an oil spill in the economically and environmentally sensitive area means. 

Wildlife

The spill site is just outside of the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, which is in the midst of its peak migration season. Migration attracts 50,000 or more shorebirds to the mud flats. That’s bad news for the birds—especially given the type of oil that spilled. According to the Christian Science Monitor:

Jim Suydam, spokesman for the Texas’ 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.

Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, reports more bad news for the bird life in the area

Meanwhile, environmental groups like Texas Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and a Texas non-profit called Wildlife Response Services have been responding to reports of impacted bird life.

“We’ve had a small number of confirmed reports of impacted birds,” Beuerman said. “WRS has rehabilitation trailers on various sites around the area for those birds to be brought in and treated.”

Of course, bird life is just the fastest thing to identify with a spill. The impact on ocean life won’t be clear until much later—and might be felt, as with the Deepwater Horizon spill, for generations of fish to come

Ship Traffic

The Houston Ship Channel was closed from Saturday through Monday, creating a backlog of ships and barges that stretched for days. As of Tuesday afternoon, the channel had re-opened in a limited capacity. Ships were allowed to move through the channel at low speed, but not yet permitted to leave. 

Slowing down traffic at the channel has an economic impact that could be felt well outside the region. The refineries that the channel serves are vital to American oil production. According to Click2Houston.com, though, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson says that Texas City refineries “appear to have enough crude oil on hand to continue operating until the ship channel can re-open.”

Meanwhile, ABC reports that the ultimate impact—both environmentally and economically—won’t be felt for some time. 

The US Coast Guard is now calling on Texas A&M Marine experts in Galveston to conduct an environmental impact study. There’s also growing concern about the economic impact to businesses.

Some maritime experts are predicting loses in the millions of dollars.

“Millions of dollars” sounds like a drop in the bucket, when talking about the profits of the oil industry—so perhaps it’s the drops of oil in the ocean that are the primary concern right now. 

(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

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