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'Significant' oil spill closes major US ship channel

TEXAS CITY, Texas--No timetable has been set to reopen a major U.S. shipping channel after nearly 643,500 liters of tar-like oil spilled into the Texas waterway, but more help was being called in Monday to contain the spill and protect important shorebird habitat.

A barge carrying about 3.4 million liters of the heavy oil collided with a ship Saturday in the busy Houston Ship Channel, spilling as much as a fifth of its cargo into one of the world's busiest waterways for moving petrochemicals, according to the Coast Guard.

The channel, part of the Port of Houston, typically handles as many as 80 vessels daily. But it will remain closed for a third day Monday, and the Coast Guard said there was no timetable on when it may reopen.

If the bottleneck of vessels in the Gulf eases in a day or so, there likely wouldn't be much impact on fuel prices. But a more prolonged backup could push up prices briefly, said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Jim Ritterbusch and Associates in Chicago.

Oil had been detected 19 kilometers offshore in the Gulf of Mexico by Sunday, and as many as 60 vessels were either waiting to get in or out. The Coast Guard — which called it a “significant spill” — said it expected to deploy more containment booms Monday, with 24 vessels working to skim the oil.

Environmental groups said the spill occurred at an especially sensitive time. The channel in Texas City, about 72 kilometers southeast of Houston, has important shorebird habitat on both sides, and tens of thousands of wintering birds are still in the area.

“The timing really couldn't be much worse since we're approaching the peak shorebird migration season,” said Richard Gibbons, conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society.

He noted that just to the east is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, which attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats that are perfect foraging habitat.

Fewer than 10 oiled birds had been found and recovered for transfer to a wildlife rehabilitation center as of Sunday afternoon, according to the Coast Guard. The Texas General Land Office has also deployed a bird rehabilitation trailer in the area for quick response.

“This is a significant spill,” Capt. Brian Penoyer, commander of the Coast Guard at Houston-Galveston, said. But he said the emptying the remaining oil from the barge on Sunday, a process known as lightering as contents are transferred to other vessels, was an important step and eliminated the risk of additional oil spilling.

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A dead, oil-covered bird is shown on the shore area along Boddeker Road near the shipping channel on the eastern end of Galveston, Texas on Sunday, March 23.

(AP)

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