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Texas oil spill harms wildlife; officials work to reopen ship channel

Disasters and AccidentsIndustrial DisastersOil and Chemical SpillsEnvironmental IssuesPetroleum IndustryEnvironmental PollutionBusiness

Authorities in Texas were hoping to partially reopen the busy Houston Ship Channel on Monday, officials said, after a significant oil spill over the weekend that is harming wildlife and the local economy.

[Updated, 5:35 p.m. March 24: The shipping channel remained closed Monday night.

U.S. Coast Guard officials said 168,000 gallons of oil spilled from a barge after a collision with a Liberian-flagged ship in Galveston Bay about 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, threatening birds at a nearby wildlife sanctuary. The cause of the spill is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard.

The channel has been closed since the Saturday incident and an estimated 80 ships are waiting to pass through, spokeswoman Kaila Thompson said on Monday.

“We are hoping to be partially open to ships today so that some of the ships can move through,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “We are still monitoring the area to determine when is the safest time to open it up.”

One of the key concerns is the effect on birds and wildlife. The Texas attorney general’s office announced that it had sent investigators from its Environmental Protection Division to the spill site.

“Galveston Bay, Galveston Island and the surrounding coast area are Texas treasures,” Atty. Gen. Greg Abbot said in a statement. “The damage inflicted by this spill is a blow to small businesses, fishing, recreation and the overall economy – but its ripple effects will be felt much wider. While emergency workers race to get the spill contained and cleaned, the attorney general’s office will assist with the coordinated state response and has opened a civil investigation into this disaster.”

As of Monday morning, more than three birds had been affected by the oil spill, Thompson said. Some reports said that the number was larger, less than a dozen. Other wildlife, including dolphins and turtles, could also be affected, environmentalists said.

Officials will continue to monitor the environmental effect along with working to contain the oil and to reopen the channel, Thompson said.

The Houston Ship Channel is one of the world’s busiest waterways for moving petrochemicals, according to the Coast Guard.

If traffic resumes on Monday, little effect on fuel prices is expected. However, a long delay on the resumption of shipping could increase the price to consumers.

Some oil had been detected 12 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico by Sunday.

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