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By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

HOUSTON — Oil spilled from a barge in Galveston Bay, blocking the Houston ship channel and threatening some birds at a nearby wildlife sanctuary, officials and environmentalists said.

U.S. Coast Guard officials said as much as 168,000 gallons of oil may have spilled.

Michael Lambert, spokesman for Galveston County Office of Emergency Management, called it a “significant spill,” but not based on the amount of oil.

“The real issue is that it’s in the ship channel, near environmentally sensitive areas. So there’s an economic impact and an environmental impact,” he said.

Crews were skimming oil and laying absorbent booms to contain the spread of the spill, which occurred in the channel that runs between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, Lambert said.

On Sunday, the spill prevented dozens of ships, including a few cruise ships, from transiting the channel, one of the world’s busiest petrochemical transport routes.

The spill comes on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Exxon oil spill in Valdez, Alaska, which took a devastating toll on wildlife. That spill involved 10 million gallons of oil.

The last major spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the Deepwater Horizon or BP oil spill, which dumped 210 million gallons four years ago.

“On the scale of the Valdez, this is not even a blip. It’s a lot of oil, but it’s not a Valdez or a Deepwater Horizon,” Lambert said.

But Richard Gibbons, conservation director for the Houston Audubon Society, said he has already received reports and photographs of oiled birds at the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary near the spill. Staff there reported smelling the oil on shore, but had yet to spot the oily sheen on the water.

Oiled birds that have flown into the sanctuary, Gibbons said, include ruddy turnstones, laughing gulls and American white pelicans, and some shore birds have also appeared with oil — a sign the oil has made it to shore.

The sanctuary attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds annually to its shallow mud flats. Gibbons said he was working with state officials responding to the spill to ensure the environmental effects are limited.

“We just want to make sure the boom is going in where it needs to be,” he said.

The spill was reported at 12:30 p.m. Saturday by the captain of a 585-foot Liberian-flagged ship, Summer Wind, that had struck the barge, Coast Guard officials said.

The cause of the crash was still under investigation Sunday, according to Coast Guard Lt. Sam Danus. Two crew members aboard the tug and barge were hospitalized as a precaution due to exposure to hydrogen sulfide, Danus said.

The barge was carrying nearly a million gallons of marine fuel oil and was being towed by the Miss Susan tugboat, Danus said. He said only one of the barge’s tanks was breached, and although it contained about 168,000 gallons of oil, it was not clear how much oil had spilled. Crews were working Sunday to remove the remaining oil from the barge, he said.

Greg Beuerman, a representative of Kirby Inland Marine which owns the tug boat and barge, told The Times that the spill may turn out to have been less than feared once officials finish their cleanup.

Photo: Barclay C Nix via Flickr

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