On Saturday, March 24, 2014, two vessels collided in the Houston Ship Channel spilling approximately 168,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into Galveston Bay. The Houston Ship Channel was closed for three days as cleanup efforts began by the US Coast Guard, Texas General Land Office, NOAA, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Kirby Inland Marine Corp (responsible party), and other organizations.
Initially, more than 69,000 feet of containment boom was deployed around the spill site and along the sensitive shorelines. Vessels were also deployed to skim the oil from the surface of the water. NOAA is supporting cleanup efforts by providing scientific analysis including trajectory forecasts of the spilled oil. According to a Coast Guard news release, oil recovery plans extended further into the Gulf of Mexico and south along Galveston Island due to changing winds and weather conditions. Rough weather midweek slowed cleanup operations but into the weekend response efforts resumed. By Friday, March 28th NOAA had estimated the trajectory of oil would reach east Matagorda Bay, approximately 100 miles south of the spill site.
Wetlands, migratory bird sanctuaries, and protected lands surround Galveston Bay. The proximity of the spill to bird sanctuaries and the timing of the incident make this oil spill very dangerous for many bird populations. According to Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Conservation Specialist, Meredith Gutowski, “more than 100,000 migratory shorebirds depend on this site every year for breeding, migration, and/or wintering.” Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary is one of many bird areas in Galveston Bay where thousands of birds visit and nest during their spring migration. Bolivar Flats is a globally recognized Important Bird Area, which means the protected acreage is crucial habitat for long-term survival of viable populations of many species.
On Monday, Houston Audubon, who owns and manages the Bolivar Sanctuaries reported seeing approximately 100 oiled birds so far. Rehabilitation centers have been erected to clean oiled birds. 45 birds were so heavily oiled they died upon arrival to the rehabilitation centers. Beginning Friday the Coast Guard will mobilize teams of Galveston Bay Foundation volunteers to search the length of Galveston beach for more affected wildlife, tar balls, and areas of oily sand. It is clear the impact of this spill will be long lasting. The Coast Guard is conducting a full investigation of the incident.