The Houston Ship Channel, home to the nation’s largest petrochemical complex and export port, reopened all lanes of traffic for the first time since a March 22 oil spill.
Voyages are restricted to daylight hours, Captain Clint Winegar, vice president of Houston Ship Pilots, said in a telephone interview. Five vessels are entering the channel and 15 are on their way outbound, he said. Fifteen to 20 more should be able to enter the channel before dark. Priority is being given to cargoes of crude oil, perishables, refrigerated goods and cars.
“As soon as we go to 24 hours, within a couple of days we’ll be back to normal,” Winegar said. The Coast Guard will determine when daylight restrictions are lifted, he said.
As of 6:30 a.m. local time, 51 vessels were waiting to come into the channel and 36 were waiting to leave, Lieutenant Sam Danus of U.S. Coast Guard said by telephone.
Exxon Mobil Corp. is receiving crude shipments again at its 560,500-barrel-a-day refinery in Baytown, Texas, Todd Spitler, spokesman for the Irving, Texas-based company, said by e-mail. The refinery, which reduced rates after the channel closed, will now adjust them accordingly, Spitler said.
Representatives for Valero Energy Corp., Marathon Petroleum Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell Plc, which own all or part of refineries on the 52-mile (84-kilometer) shipping lane, have declined to discuss operations at those plants. The combined capacity of refineries dependent on the ship channel is 2.1 million barrels a day, said Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates LLC in Houston.
The spill of 4,000 barrels of bunker fuel occurred when a barge being towed by the vessel Miss Susan was struck at 12:35 p.m. local time March 22 by the 585-foot bulk carrier Summer Wind, causing one of the barge’s six tanks to leak fuel oil, the Coast Guard said. The fuel from the remaining five tanks has been removed and the vessel will be moved to a local shipyard.
The leaking vessel was identified as Kirby Barge 27706, according to the Port of Houston Authority. The Summer Wind, a Liberian-flagged vessel owned by Sea Galaxy Marine SA, was operated by Cleopatra Shipping Agency Ltd., said Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for the Joint Information Center responding to the spill.
There were six collisions in the channel last year, Coast Guard data show. Incidents closed the waterway for 26 hours in 2013, compared with 5.5 hours in 2012 and 157.2 hours in 2011. An average day on the channel in 2013 saw 38 tankers, 22 freighters, one cruise ship, 345 tows, six public vessels, 297 ferries, 25 other transits and 75 ships in port.
In 2013, an average of 2.15 million barrels a day of products including gasoline and diesel were exported from the Gulf Coast, and 3.76 million barrels of day of crude were imported, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The remaining slick is off the coast of Matagorda Island and expected to reach the island’s shore at midnight, Mike Cox, a spokesman at the Joint Information Center handling the spill, said by phone. So far it has killed 19 birds, and 11 others are in rehabilitation.
The damage to bird habitats appears to be contained to the immediate vicinity of the spill, Audubon Texas said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. The group is the state program of the National Audubon Society. Hundreds of thousands of birds are arriving in Galveston Bay at this time of year for spring migration.