Houston Ship Channel reopens, restoring access to one of nation’s biggest ports

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Houston Ship Channel reopens, ships moving through

HOUSTON — The Houston Ship Channel was reopened Wednesday, restoring access to one of the nation’s busiest ports three days after it was shut down by a barge accident, the Coast Guard said.

Vessels began moving through after an electric tower that had teetered over the waterway since the weekend accident was lowered safely to the ground.

The channel is the main point of access to the country’s largest petroleum refineries. It pumps about $320 million a day into Texas’ economy, a figure that includes all jobs associated with the waterway, according to the Coast Guard and the nonprofit trade group Greater Houston Port Bureau.

About 40 inbound and 24 outbound ships were delayed by the closure, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Marcus Woodring said. He estimated that it would take another three or four days to clear the backlog.

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.

“There were obviously (financial) losses because there’s a cost associated with operating a ship,” Woodring said. “But it’s very difficult to determine exactly what the economic impact is going to be.”

Woodring said assessing the financial loss isn’t as simple as multiplying $320 million by three, as some have tried to do, since so many variables are in play. The refineries continued to operate and truckers were able to transport cargo already in the port, he said.

Greater Houston Port Bureau spokesman John Smith said the closure was a temporary setback, much like what could occur during a hurricane or bad fog.

“The thing that’s important to remember here is these vessels are coming from Japan, the Bahamas or somewhere — they’re not going to turn around and go home,” Smith said.

“If you look at the entirety of the month of October, the economic impact will not be that significant,” he added. “It’s just a matter of sifting through everything.”

Any costs would be passed along in a trickle-down effect, he said.

Ricky Kunz, the Port of Houston Authority vice president of origination, added: “The money is going to slow down a little bit, but the business is still going to come, it’s just going to be a bit slower getting here.”

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

The last power line was cut about 11 p.m. Tuesday and the tower was lowered to the ground about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, CenterPoint spokeswoman Leticia Lowe said.

At 1:30 a.m., the channel was opened to outbound tug and barge traffic only. By 7 a.m. it was opened to big tankers, and by 11:30 a.m. all vessel traffic was allowed, Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm said.

Brahm likened the channel to a parking lot Wednesday, explaining that if there were no open spots ships couldn’t be allowed in. He said authorities were allowing the vessels into the channel according to priority.

For example, if a refinery was running low on crude to process, the ship carrying that product was allowed in first.

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

Associated Press writers Terry Wallace and Linda Stewart Ball in Dallas contributed to this report.

will not be displayed