The Coast Guard partially reopened one of the nation's busiest seaports to ship traffic Tuesday, three days after a collision between a barge and a ship spilled up to 170,000 gallons of tar-like oil into the waters south of Houston.
Authorities said ships were being allowed through the Houston Ship Channel after their assessment teams deemed it was clear enough for passage. About 100 ships were waiting Tuesday morning to move through the channel, which connects Southeast Texas to the Gulf of Mexico and is a key route for tourism and traffic to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The Coast Guard began to allow more traffic after a test run of two ships — a Carnival cruise and a boat belonging to the Houston Pilots association. Officials expect it to take about three days for channel traffic to get back to normal.
"The cleanup operations progress is to the point that there is minimal danger of contamination to the commercial maritime traffic and allowing limited transit during daylight hours," said Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer. "This is an important accomplishment for every person working this response."
The Coast Guard hopes to get as much oil out of the water as possible within the next 24 hours, deploying skimmers in some areas, as winds are expected to pick up Wednesday and move remaining oil toward the Texas shoreline.
A barge carrying 900,000 gallons of oil collided Saturday with a ship, causing oil to pour into the channel and leading to the closure.
The amount of oil spilled was much less than such major U.S. disasters as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound, and the Deepwater Horizon spill, which resulted in 100 million gallons of oil entering the Gulf of Mexico four years ago.
But it still required a major cleanup effort by state authorities who laid down miles of oil boom and deployed yellow-uniformed workers to pick up black, quarter-sized "tar balls" washing up on shore. Wildlife protection workers from the local Audubon Society picked up birds stained in oil for cleaning.
Officials believe most of the oil is drifting out into the Gulf of Mexico and heading southwest, which should limit the impact on bird habitats around Galveston Bay as well as beaches and fisheries important to tourists. Workers ready to clean up oil residue are stationed in counties south of Galveston, officials said.
The best-case scenario is for most of the slick to remain in the Gulf for at least several days and congeal into small tar balls that wash up further south on the Texas coast, where they could be picked up and removed, said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the lead state agency on the response to the spill. Crews from the General Land Office are monitoring water currents and the movement of the oil, he said.
"The big question is: Where is the oil that went into the Gulf of Mexico?" he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "That's the next question to be answered."
Environmental groups said the spill occurred at an especially sensitive time and place. The channel in Texas City, about 45 miles southeast of Houston, has shorebird habitat on both sides, and tens of thousands of wintering birds are still in the area.
The channel, part of the Port of Houston, typically handles as many as 80 large ships daily, as well as about 300 to 400 tugboats and barges.
Among those waiting Tuesday morning to depart were spring tourists boarding cruise ships that were headed south.
Tiffany Parker of Fort Smith, Ark., was with her daughter and 10 other adults and children for a Carnival cruise. Their trip had been delayed two days, and while Carnival offered them the choice to head home with a full refund, Parker's group decided to wait it out.
Parker said the children were in good spirits and making new friends, while she was taking advantage of her spa package.
"Most people are not happy and disappointed, but I think they realize it's not Carnival's fault," Parker said. "It's an oil spill."