PORT BOLIVAR, Texas (AP) — Peering through binoculars and small portable telescopes mounted on tripods, two conservationists stood near the beach on Texas' Bolivar Peninsula on Tuesday, searching for birds that might have tar-like oil on them from a weekend spill in the nearby Houston Ship Channel.
Kristen Vale — who wore a cap with the words "Protect Piping Plovers," a reference to a type of shorebird — spotted a small brownish bird darting across the sand.
"A least sandpiper with oil on its belly," Vale told colleague Pete Deichmann, who jotted down the information in a green notebook. Both Vale and Deichmann work for the Houston chapter of the National Audubon Society and were conducting a survey of the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, an area of salt marshes, mud flats and beach that can have up to 10,000 birds daily.
As environmental groups and officials continued to evaluate the possible impact of the spill on wildlife and the shoreline, the Coast Guard partially reopened the Houston Ship Channel on Tuesday after assessment teams deemed it clear enough for passage. The channel had been closed since Saturday, when a barge carrying 900,000 gallons oil collided with a ship, causing the spill. Officials believe up to 170,000 gallons of tar-like oil might have spilled into the waters south of Houston.
Early on during what was to be a nearly three-hour survey, Vale and Deichmann said they were encouraged by initial results that seemed to indicate the effects of the oil on wildlife might not be as great as initially feared. State and federal officials seemed to echo those sentiments Tuesday as they said the effects of the oil spill on birds and other wildlife remains relatively low. But they remained cautious, saying they continue to find injured animals that they are cleaning and treating.
"We'll be here until the last bird has been recovered," said Richard Arnhart, with the Texas General Land Office's oil spill prevention division. "You are going to have various stages of oiled wildlife."
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 — to make sure the water was clean. Officials expect it to take about three days for channel traffic to get back to normal.
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. On a typical day, the channel, part of the Port of Houston, handles as many as 80 large ships, as well as about 300 to 400 tugboats and barges.