Nearly 70 ships jammed up awaiting delayed reopening of crucial Houston Ship Channel

By Ramit Plushnick-masti, AP
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ships back up as Houston canal reopening delayed

HOUSTON — The reopening of the Houston Ship Channel after a barge accident left an electric tower teetering precariously over the waterway has been delayed, further clogging the main artery leading into one of the nation’s busiest ports.

The channel, which is a main access point for the country’s largest petroleum refineries, initially was to reopen late Tuesday. But the U.S. Coast Guard said in the afternoon that it would not reopen until Wednesday, and ships were piling up at the gates.

The agency estimates the channel closure accounts for about $320 million a day in economic losses, including factors such as jobs associated with the waterway and ships waiting to pass being unable to deliver or receive goods.

Early Tuesday, about four dozen ships waited to cross the four-mile stretch that has been closed since the Sunday morning accident and the Coast Guard predicted it would take at least three days to clear up the traffic jam. By Tuesday afternoon, nearly 70 ships — including more than 30 tankers — waited for the electric tower to be cleared.

The crash occurred about 6 a.m. Sunday when a tug pushing three barges hit the tower. “Big John,” one of the largest cranes in the country, was brought in Monday to help hold the tower up as CenterPoint Energy crews cut 14 power lines.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm said the lines should be cut by late Tuesday. Crews then planned to work all night to cut the legs off the tower so it could be removed. The channel, he said, should then reopen Wednesday, though he could not give an exact time.

The channel leads to the Port of Houston, the country’s leader in foreign waterborne tonnage and imports and second in U.S. export tonnage and total tonnage.

Brahm likened the channel to a parking lot, explaining that if there are no open spots ships cannot be allowed in. So the first priority, once the area reopens, will be to allow vessels to leave. Once that happens, operators will prioritize which ships need to enter based on needs of different facilities. For example, if a refinery is running low on crude to process, the ship carrying that product would be allowed in first, Brahm said.

“You have to let boats out first and only then start bringing them in,” he said.

will not be displayed