GALVESTON, Texas — A test run of two ships through the Houston Ship Channel offered hope Tuesday that traffic could begin to clear on both sides of the waterway after an oil spill halted dozens of vessels in the environmentally sensitive waters along the Gulf of Mexico.
The Carnival Magic cruise ship and a boat operated by the Houston Pilots association were cleared to sail through the channel and Galveston Bay, Coast Guard Lt. Sam Danus said Tuesday.
A barge spilled as much of 170,000 gallons of oil in the area on Saturday. Since then, about 100 barges and other ships have been waiting to enter or leave through the channel that connects the Gulf with Houston and other parts of Southeast Texas, including key oil refineries near Texas City.
The two ships’ progress will help determine whether the channel can be reopened to more traffic, Danus said.
Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Andy Kendrick said officials needed to ensure that the water and the ships moving through the channel were free of oil.
“We’re definitely working hard to ensure that we’ve gotten clean water so that ships can transit,” Kendrick said. “They’re hopeful they can get that done today.”
Crews have laid down miles of oil boom and have been picking up black, quarter-size “tar balls” washing up on shore. Cannons are being blasted on one beach to scare birds from the oil-slicked sand and rocks.
Most of the oil appears to have moved out of the ship channel and Galveston Bay, and into the Gulf of Mexico, said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the lead state agency on the response to the spill.
Patterson said he saw “very little” oil sheen on the bay waters during a flyover Tuesday morning.
“The big question is, `Where is the oil that went into the Gulf of Mexico?’” he said in a phone interview.
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 farther south on the Texas coast, where they can be picked up and removed, Patterson said.
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