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Most Recent Spill in Houston Ship Channel Illustrates Dangers


On March 9, two tankers collided in the Houston Ship Channel, spilling methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE into the water. The 600 foot ships crashed in the fog. No injuries were reported, but residents of the Morgan’s Point area were asked to stay indoors until the next day. Although the shelter-place order was lifted overnight, the ship channel remained closed until Thursday afternoon as crews tried to clean up the spill.

Three cargo tanks on the Danish-flagged ship Carla Maersk ruptured in the impact, spilling the gasoline additive into the water. The chemical is difficult to remove and the difficulty is increased because it was not immediately clear exactly how much of the spilled MTBE entered the waterway. However, the Coast Guard reported that the leak was stopped within 90 minutes after the collision was reported.

This was the second accident in the ship channel in less than a week, although the previous incident did not cause pollution or injuries. Last March, the channel was closed for several days after a barge collided with another ship in the channel. A million gallons of marine fuel spilled into Galveston Bay.

The Port of Houston typically handles about 70 ships per day as well as 300 to 400 tugboats and barges. It is usually listed first in the U.S. in rankings of foreign waterborne tonnage handled. But the ship channel is very narrow, requiring specialized pilots to guide huge tankers and cargo ships through the channel as it twists and turns from Galveston to Houston. Considering the conditions, it is remarkable that more spills do not occur.

The water is polluted enough that people are advised to limit their intake of fish from the channel and to remove the fatty meat where toxins are concentrated. Pregnant women and children are told to eat no ship channel fish at all.

According to a story last year in the Texas Tribune, pollution in the ship channel is not only from leaks and spills such as the one last week. One of the major sources of water contamination is the wastewater dumped from a paper mill into the water beginning around 1965.

Reporting by Houston Public Media in 2012 named the Houston Ship Channel as the most polluted waterway in Texas and the 16th most polluted in the United States. The same report nominated the state as the having the fourth greatest number of polluted waterways of the states in the US.

If you were injured while working in or around the Houston Ship Channel, or if you believe that you are experiencing a work-related illness as a result of exposure to toxins in the ship channel’s water, take the time to learn about your legal rights and options.  Call the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner at 713-396-3964 for a free initial consultation.

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