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

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Houston Ship Channel reopens

HOUSTON — The Houston Ship Channel has reopened, three days after it was closed by a barge accident.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm says the channel reopened to all marine traffic about 7 a.m. Wednesday, a few hours after it was partially reopened to outbound tug and barge traffic.

He said vessels are being admitted to the channel, one by one, by order of priority.

The main artery into one of the nation’s busiest ports had been closed since a barge struck a tower holding high-voltage electric cables above the canal. The impact left the tower teetering precariously over the waterway. Workers using one of the nation’s largest cranes lowered the tower to its side Wednesday morning.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Ship Channel was partially reopened Wednesday after an electric tower that had teetered over the waterway since a weekend barge accident was lowered to the ground, the Coast Guard said.

The channel reopened about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday to outbound tug and barge traffic only, Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm said. He declined to say when authorities would fully reopen the channel that leads to one of the nation’s busiest ports and is the main point of access to the country’s largest petroleum refineries.

The channel initially was to reopen late Tuesday.

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.

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.

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.

The U.S. Coast Guard estimated 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 — were waiting for the electric tower to be cleared.

Brahm has 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 channel reopened fully, 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 Tuesday.

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