Houston Ship Channel barge accident causes $1B loss as vessels wait to cross, Coast Guard says

By Ramit Plushnick-masti, AP
Monday, October 4, 2010

USCG: Houston Ship Channel crash causes $1B loss

HOUSTON — A barge accident that left an electric tower leaning precariously over the water and shut down the Houston Ship Channel, disrupting traffic to one of the nation’s busiest ports, will cause a nearly $1 billion economic loss, the Coast Guard said Monday.

The channel will remain closed until at least Tuesday night, Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm said. So far, nearly 30 vessels are waiting to cross the channel, which is the lifeline to the Port of Houston. The port is the nation’s leader in foreign waterborne tonnage and imports and runner-up in U.S. export tonnage and total tonnage.

Four miles of the channel shutdown at 6 a.m. Sunday after a tug pushing three barges hit an electric tower. The tower tipped over and is now leaning on a barge. No power outages resulted, but Brahm said the tower is too unstable for ship traffic to continue safely.

CenterPoint Energy, the owner of the tower, had a crane working Monday to remove the tower. Spokeswoman Leticia Lowe said the company initially thought it would take until midday Wednesday to complete the job, but they now hope to have it done by late Tuesday.

“Big John,” one of the largest cranes in the country, will lift the tower and stabilize it while electric company workers disconnect the power cables, Lowe said. The tower will then be put down on an island and dismantled.

The Coast Guard estimates about $322 million a day in economic activity, including jobs, is associated with the channel, Brahm said. On average, between 30 and 40 vessels cross the channel daily. But it would take at least a week for the closure to begin impacting supplies to the numerous area refineries, a situation that would lead to greater economic consequences.

For now, some ships will be able to divert themselves to other Texas facilities such as Baytown, Galveston or Corpus Christi, Brahm said. He added that operators also are accustomed to frequent, sometimes two-day long closures, resulting from fog.

Container operations, the bulk of the waterway’s business, remains unaffected by the accident, said Ricky Kunz, vice president of origination at the Port of Houston. Still, most vessels in the closed area must sit and wait until it reopens.

“This is very unusual,” Kunz said. Tugs are “not running into stuff every day of the week.”

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