Three days into a massive cleanup effort and the complete shutdown of one of the country's busiest shipping channels, officials said Monday that the area seems to have dodged an environmental bullet after a stricken oil tanker dumped more than 450,000 gallons of crude into a Port Arthur waterway.
About half of the spilled oil -- 220,000 gallons -- had been cleared from the waterway, and crews off-loaded the damaged tank ship and barge that collided Saturday morning in hopes of moving the ships out of the narrow canal by Wednesday.
An army of workers continued to sop up the spill just outside the port of Port Arthur today. On Monday, favorable winds and nearly 60,000 feet of plastic walls, called booms, helped crews contain the slick to a roughly 2-mile area.
By Monday afternoon, the known extent of the spill on the area's wildlife amounted to two birds reported coated in oil -- one flew away; the other was captured and cleaned -- and no oil appeared to have entered the areas sensitive wetlands.
Coast Guard officials said that while they couldn't say exactly when the Sabine Neches Waterway would be safe for through-traffic again, they planned to allow a few vessels to pass today in a test run that could signal an imminent reopening.
"The plan is to reopen as soon as we can," said U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Lionel Bryant on Monday. The hope is that the channel will reopen no later than Wednesday once the tanker is gone.
The cause of the collision is still under investigation, but Coast Guard officials have said their initial report that the tanker, the Eagle Otome, lost power shortly before the accident was not actually the case.
The economic toll continued to mount as the cleanup extended through another day, barring the traffic that feeds four major oil refineries in Port Arthur, Orange and Beaumont. As of this morning, 13 ships were waiting to enter the channel, and 11 more were waiting to leave, along with roughly 100 tow boats and tugs.
The port of Port Arthur suffered significant losses over the weekend from delayed cargo, and officials there were taking stock Monday of millions of dollars in damage done to a wharf when the Eagle Otome collided with a ship moored there -- in addition to the collision with the barge that ripped a hole in its hull. The moored ship hit the wharf and did roughly $1 million to $3 million in damage, said Floyd Gaspard, the port's executive director.
Coast Guard officials have estimated a potential economic impact of roughly $200 million a day for as long as the channel remains closed, largely in possible losses sustained by the refineries owned by Motiva Enterprises, Valero, Exxon Mobil and Total Petrochemicals. The refineries typically keep a surplus of crude oil on hand, Bryant said, but when that runs out, work could grind to a halt, affecting companies around the country that depend on their supply. Meanwhile, the ships that stock the refineries are stalled in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The ships waiting to come in cost several thousands of dollars an hour to operate," Gaspard said.
The port itself does big business with other types of cargo: most significantly wood pulp, which is scheduled for off-loading and daily delivery to companies around the country.
"It's well over 300,000 tons a year just for that customer," Gaspard said.
Port Arthur's major shrimping company, JBS Shrimp Packing, also is located within the spill zone. While shrimping season is over, the portion of its fleet that was docked in the channel was coated in oil, officials said. The company's owner did not return phone calls Monday.
Investigators continued to probe the cause of the collision on Monday by reviewing radio transmissions and interviewing crew members and witnesses. Officials said that while fog is a common issue this time of year, visibility was not significantly impaired on Saturday. While early reports indicated the Eagle Otome had lost power before the collision, Coast Guard officials now say there was no sign of mechanical failure on the ship.
Despite the magnitude of what officials have called the worst oil spill in Texas since 1994, the environmental impacts have so far been minimal.
The spill is currently confined to the industrialized, man-made canal that is lined on both sides by rip rap. State officials said there are no signs of leakage around the booms, and fly-overs revealed no contamination of wetlands or the large oyster reef in nearby Sabine Lake.
"Right now, it looks like we're in fairly good shape," said Jamie Schubert, a biologist and marsh expert for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Dean Bossert, manager of the McFaddin and Texas Point National Wildlife Refuges, about 15 miles south of Port Arthur, said he expects to see a few oiled birds, but not "bunches."
Environmentalists attributed the relatively insignificant damage to a quick response to the leak and sophisticated technology that allows more efficient cleanup than was possible in previous spills.
Copyright (c) 2010, Houston Chronicle. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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