Oil Spill Closes Houston Ship Channel


GALVESTON, Texas (CN) - An oil spill in Galveston Bay has shut down the Houston Ship Channel, a crucial route for the oil and gas industry, and will have far-reaching impacts for people who depend on the bay to make a living, stakeholders claim in a federal class action.
     A tanker barge collided with a ship Saturday afternoon and spilled up to 168,000 gallons of heavy ship oil, prompting the Coast Guard to close the Houston Ship Channel as cleanup crews scrambled to contain the oil with booms.
     Fishing guides, bait shop and restaurant owners filed the class action Monday against the barge owner, Kirby Inland Marine, and the ship owner, Cleopatra Shipping Agency Ltd.
     The class seeks damages under the Oil Pollution Act, which Congress passed in 1990 in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
     Monday marked the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, set off when an Exxon oil tanker hit a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska and spilled up to 750,000 gallons of oil.
     In the new lawsuit, lead plaintiff fishing guide Sammy Flores says the spill has "already caused tremendous damage to Galveston Bay."
     "It is unknown how long marine traffic will be stopped," the complaint states. "Coast Guard officials have reported that this is 'an extremely serious spill' and that 'This is persistent oil. It's a large quantity. It will spread. People should be aware of that.'
     "The marine fuel oil that was released is a heavy crude and highly polluting oil that does not evaporate quickly making it particularly harmful to the environment and difficult to clean up," the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs seek class certification and punitive damages for negligence, gross negligence, trespass, nuisance and violations of The Oil Pollution Act.
     They are represented by Sean O'Rourke with the Simon-O'Rourke Law Firm of Houston.
     As of Monday night the Coast Guard had not reopened the Houston Ship Channel.
     "There are 46 outbound vessels and 47 inbound vessels in the queue for transit in the Port of Houston," the Coast Guard said in a statement. "The Port of Texas City has 5 inbound and 3 outbound vessels in the queue awaiting transit. Once the channel has been determined safe to navigate, and transiting vessels will not spread oil contaminants, a prioritization list will be established to determine the entry order of vessels."
     Bill Gilmer, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, told Houston's National Public Radio affiliate that the ship channel closure could drive up gas prices. Houston's refineries depend on imported crude oil.