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Jan Lee headshot

Oil Spill Shuts Down Houston Ship Channel on Exxon Valdez Anniversary

Words by Jan Lee

It’s been said that history repeats itself. It’s doubtful that the author of that saying had oil spills in mind at the time – and even less likely the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Still, the irony of this weekend’s collision and spill near Galveston Bay, Texas on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Exxon spill has been hard to ignore.

Approximately 168,000 gallons of crude oil has been leaking into the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay since Saturday -- when a barge being pulled by a towboat collided with a cargo ship in the channel off the coast of Texas City, Texas. The collision closed down traffic and has backed up vessels both ways. More than 80 commercial ships were waiting to get into port as of Monday morning. The Bolivar Peninsula ferry, which shuttles commuters between the peninsula and Galveston, Texas, has been closed until the spill can be cleaned up.

The oil slick coated parts of Galveston’s vibrant estuary, which is home to several endangered and threatened species, such as the hawksbill sea turtle and the whooping crane. The estuary also contributes one-third of the state’s commercial fishing revenue and more than 50 percent of its recreational revenues. Several wildlife refuges border the area, including the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, at the mouth of Galveston Bay.

The accident has also taken a hunk out of the crude oil industry's production this week. Exxon Mobil, which operates a refinery in Baytown, Texas, announced that afternoon that it would be cutting back on production at its 560,000 barrel a day facility. Baytown is reputed to be the country’s second-largest refinery of its kind.

On Monday evening, after more than two days of cleanup efforts, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that it would begin a “tapered” opening of the channel once the Port of Houston was able to confirm that all of the oil had been removed from the waterway.

Captain Brian Penoyer, who serves as the commander of the Galveston-Houston sector of the U.S. Coast Guard and the captain of the Port of Houston, said that the resumption of service would take place “as soon as we can” and that it would not be a “floodgate of resumption of marine traffic,” but a gradual increase. All ships that were exposed to the spill would need to be cleansed first to ensure further oil was not carried into the port areas.

As to the environmental effects of the spill, rescue crews say approximately 50 birds have already been affected by the spill, although Houston Audubon Director Richard Gibbons said rescuers are expecting a much higher count. A rehabilitation trailer has been set up to clean and nurse the birds. So far, Gibbons said, the number of affected birds has been small compared to the environmental damage that was sustained in Alaska in 1989.

Still, the lessons of the Exxon Valdez spill, which resulted in tens of millions of gallons of oil leaking into port and estuary areas likely won’t be far from mind in Galveston Bay in the next few weeks.  Like the affected communities in Alaska that are still feeling the effects of the Exxon oil spill 25 years ago, Galveston has a lot to lose.

Image of Galveston Bay channel: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Flickr)

Image of barge in Galveston Bay: Roy Luck

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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