Port of Houston Closed

| Monday, 24 Mar. 2014

A collision between two fuel carrying vessels leads to a large oil spill in Houston Bay

It has been a bad week for the port of Houston. It started with fog so thick that cruise ships’ captains were advised to remain at sea and not to even try entering the channel last Friday night. The Houston channel is long and notoriously complex to navigate – requiring a maneuver many pilots refer to as the “Texas Chicken” where, according an article published a month ago in Bloomberg News, “two ships must chart a course for a head-on collision, then (each) swerve right, and use each other’s wave pressure to move safely past.”

When the fog rolled in, several cruise ships from Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival were delayed for their return from Caribbean cruises on Friday and Saturday nights.  The passengers for the next cruises on Princess were advised to just stay home until the line had more information on their following cruise; however most were already on their way to the city.

Then the worst thing possible happened, a fuel barge, used for reloading the heavy oil used by ships called “bunker fuel” collided with an oil tanker, and an estimated 168,000 gallons of the heavy, low-grade petroleum-based fuel was released into Houston Bay. The collision occurred just inside the bay, which also affects traffic heading to the port of Galveston, located on the small barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico, which is now also closed.

One Princess Cruise Line ship, The Caribbean Princess, has been stuck at Houston’s Bayport facility since Saturday. The ship arrived early Saturday before the spill closed the port later that morning, but it has been unable to leave. The passengers from the previous cruise disembarked and those scheduled to set sail on Saturday have boarded the ship. As of Monday morning the ship was still tied up to the dock, although all of the usual shipboard activities such as meals and entertainment are happening as if the ship is already at sea. It is not yet known when the ship will be able to set sail – and contingency itineraries are being planned depending on how many days the ship will have to cruise before it must return to Houston’s Bayport next Saturday – assuming the port is re-opened by then.

The fuel spill spread rapidly, past the edge of the port entrance up to a dozen miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Now, some two dozen vessels are working with water barricades to try to contain the oil, which floats on top of the heavier sea water. Ship movement in the Houston Ship Channel from the Intra­coastal Waterway to buoy 32 has been suspended. The ferry connecting Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula is also suspended.

As of March 23rd, Sunday, at least 33 vessels, including two cruise ships were waiting to enter the channel from the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty-six vessels, including one cruise ship, were waiting to leave Galveston Bay. By Sunday night reports came out that the Carnival ship was being led into the port of Galveston by a local port pilot.

Port of Houston officials said that the waterways and ferry will not be re-opened until the water is clear, which could take several days, if not weeks.

This is troubling news for the city of Houston, which had just inked new deals with Princess Cruises to host ships in the Houston Bayport facility, which is much further inland than the Galveston port, the port for Carnival and Royal Caribbean. In addition, the port of Galveston had just last month announced a $10-million expansion to its cruise terminal, because cruising from the Texas port city has become surprisingly popular in the last five years. It is now the fourth busiest port city in the U.S. –  after the first three all located in Florida (Ft Lauderdale, Miami and Port Canaveral). Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

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