Collision Results in Chemical Spill in the Houston Ship Channel

On March 9, the medium range tanker Carla Maersk collided with the supramax bulk carrier Conti Peridot in the Houston Shipping Channel off Morgan's Point. While news sources report no injuries, the collision ruptured Carla Maersk's tanks, spilling thousands of barrels of the flammable chemical MTBE. The spill caused the shutdown of an 8-mile portion of the 50-mile waterway for nearly two days, and resulted in a "shelter-in-place" order for residents of Morgan's Point.

Carla Maersk, a Danish-flagged 44,999 deadweight ton (dwt) tanker owned by Maersk Tankers, was carrying 216,000 barrels of methyl tert-butyl ether, or MTBE. MTBE is a petrochemical primarily used as an anti-knocking additive to unleaded gasoline. In addition to being highly flammable, MTBE can give water a highly unpleasant taste and odor even in low concentrations, leading to concerns over MTBE as a groundwater contaminant. In fact, MTBE is no longer used in US markets due to state regulations and due to federal subsidies for ethanol as an alternative. Consequently, while the US is still one of the top five producers of MTBE, virtually all of it is exported, primarily to refiners in Mexico and Venezuela.

It has yet to be determined what caused the collision between Carla Maersk and Conti Peridot, a Liberian-flagged, 57,000 dwt bulker owned by CONTI Group which was carrying steel from South Korea and China. However, dense fog was reported in the area. The NTSB is investigating, but the investigation is expected to take over a year.

It is unknown how much MTBE was spilled as a result of the collision, but estimates of over 2,500 barrels have been reported, and a Coast Guard helicopter detected a narrow, 2-mile long sheen emanating from the tanker. Fortunately, the leak was stopped after 90 minutes. However, the long-term effects of this spill are as yet unclear.

If you or someone you know has been injured or suffered property damage as a result of a maritime collision or spill, contact an attorney at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or toll free at 1-800-870-9584.

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