Texas spill contained, Coast Guard says

Wildlife believed not to be at risk

Booms stretched along the riverfront near Port Arthur as crews removed thousands of gallons of oil yesterday. Booms stretched along the riverfront near Port Arthur as crews removed thousands of gallons of oil yesterday. (AP Photo/ Guiseppe Barranco, The Beaumont Enterprise)
By Juan A. Lozano
Associated Press / January 25, 2010

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PORT ARTHUR, Texas - The Coast Guard used sheets of plastic and skimmers yesterday to contain and clean up a crude oil spill in a southeast Texas port.

The spill was contained in a 2-mile area and was not believed to have hurt any local wildlife, the Coast Guard said.

The spill happened Saturday when an 800-foot tanker collided with a towing vessel pushing two barges near Port Arthur. The tide lifted the two ships and they separated early yesterday without more oil being spilled, Petty Officer Richard Brahm said.

It is still not clear how much oil is in the water and how much remains in the tanker, Brahm said. A 15-by-8-foot hole in the tanker is near the water line, so plenty of oil could still be in the portion of the vessel under water, he said.

The ship’s crew members said Saturday they pumped 69,000 barrels from the damaged tank that carried 80,000 barrels, so they have 11,000 barrels - about 450,000 gallons - unaccounted for, Brahm said.

Several local officials said only 1,000 barrels, or about 42,000 gallons, of oil had been spilled into the water.

Even if 450,000 gallons were released, the spill would still be much smaller than the 11 million gallons spilled in Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989.

The spill in Port Arthur was contained using a boom, which Brahm described as a plastic wall placed in the water to stop the oil from spreading. He said a cleanup crew was using skimmers yesterday to suck oil and water from the surface and place it in bags.

Coast Guard Captain J.J. Plunkett said initial reports indicated that none of the oil in the spill had affected marshes or hurt wildlife. He said officials believed the oil spill was “pretty much contained’’ in a 2-mile stretch of the Sabine Neches Waterway, where the spill took place and that runs along the city of Port Arthur, about 90 miles east of Houston.

“That would make the cleanup shorter, not longer,’’ Plunkett said. “The unknown of it is Mother Nature and what she’s going to do with spreading around the oil.’’

Plunkett said the cleanup effort was expected to last at least through yesterday.

No one was injured in the collision, but the Port of Port Arthur was closed and some nearby residents were evacuated for about seven hours. The cause of the collision was still under investigation yesterday.

Fewer than 100 people in a 28-block area of downtown were evacuated from the area following the collision because hydrogen sulfide - a hazardous gas with a rotten-egg smell - was emanating from the oil, Port Arthur Police Officer Wendy Billiot said. They were allowed to go home by Saturday evening after the gas was no longer detected.

Brahm said the smell of sulfur contained in the oil remained strong yesterday morning, and people were being kept away from the water where the spill occurred.

During the collision, the towing vessel also hit another tanker that was tied to a pier. Brahm said that tanker sustained some damage, but had no leaks.

The damaged tanker is owned by AET Tankers, a Malaysian company with offices in Houston.