AP NEWS

Ship channel restrictions mean hustle for its ‘traffic cops’

March 28, 2019

Traffic remains constricted on a 7-mile portion of the Houston Ship Channel a week after pollutants leaked into the waterway, flowing from a breached containment wall at the charred Intercontinental Terminals Co.

That has prompted a lot of hustle in a windowless room at Ellington Airport, where civilians and U.S. Coast Guard members monitor the ship channel with cameras, radar and the automatic identification system, or AIS, that ships use to share their location, vessel type, speed and route.

“About every minute and a half, the phone’s ringing,” said Alberto Hernandez, watch supervisor for the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston Vessel Traffic Service.

It’s a nonstop circuit of mariners calling or radioing into the Vessel Traffic Service, which is charged with providing navigational information. Typically, that means alerting vessels to when they’ll meet other vessels in the waterway or when a faster vessel will overtake them.

But in special circumstances such as the ITC spill, the ship channel monitors become traffic cops.

The Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service gave the order to close a portion of the Houston Ship Channel on Friday, and began opening this segment of waterway to daylight traffic a few days later, starting with smaller vessels and then gradually increasing to larger ones.

Daylight restrictions will remain in place until officials are confident ships won’t pick up pollutants and carry them to another part of the waterway.

To provide time for inspecting the vessels and, if needed, diverting them to be cleaned with a pressure washer, the Coast Guard is metering traffic. They want roughly one hour between each ship passing through the contaminated area and half an hour between each towboat pushing barges.

“The last thing we want to do is spread that beyond the area where we have it contained,” said Steven Nerheim, director of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston Vessel Traffic Service.

As of early Thursday afternoon, two ships and one towboat traveling through that area had some contaminants stuck to the hull (and this was cleaned before proceeding down the ship channel). But some ships were docked in the contamination area, floating in the pollutants. And as they unload cargo, making the vessel lighter and causing it to rise, more of the hull could be covered. The Coast Guard is working to get these vessels out.

As of Thursday morning, the Houston Pilots reported that 58 ships were set to enter the ship channel and 23 ships were set to leave the ship channel. One ship was preparing to move locations within the port. The Houston Pilots, tasked with guiding ships through the waterway, also reported that 13 ships passed through the contaminated area Wednesday.

Nerheim emphasized that vessel traffic is flowing normally downstream of the incident. But traffic in the stretch from the contaminated area upstream to Houston was running about 10 percent of its normal volume Wednesday, Nerheim estimated.

The first priority when reopening the waterway is to get ships out, making room at docks for vessels waiting to come in. Ships are then prioritized on level of need, as determined by the Port Coordination Team, a group that includes the Coast Guard, Port Houston, companies and other ship channel users.

The team is activated for any potential disruption, working together before and after hurricanes, fog and spills.

“We’re all reacting to this. We had a massive pollution incident midday Friday, and we’re recovering from it,” Nerheim said. “We’re starting to move traffic, and every day we’re going to move more and more traffic. And while the effect is significant, we’ll get back to normal traffic volumes.”

andrea.leinfelder@chron.com