After Oil Spill, Ships Start Moving — But Cleanup Has Just Begun

After a vast oil spill in the waters off Houston, authorities are reopening the shipping channel, hoping to ease the wait on those using it. Dave Fehling of Houston Public Media explains the cleanup.

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Vessels are moving once again in the Houston ship channel. The waterway was closed after a barge crash over the weekend spilled thousands of gallons of oil. The Coast Guard now says the channel on the Gulf of Mexico had been cleared enough to allow barge traffic to enter and exit. Still, the cleanup of one of the world's busiest waterways, which is also a sanctuary for birds and other wildlife, continues.

Dave Fehling of Houston Public Media is covering this story and joins me now. And, Dave, is the Houston ship channel fully open and if so, how many ships are waiting to get through?

DAVE FEHLING, BYLINE: Well, it's sort of open and they do have a traffic jam out there, some 80 vessels in all. Forty in the ship channel waiting to leave and then, roughly, another 40 waiting out in the bay to get in to the ship channel. It's sort of open because they started doing limited traffic just this afternoon and they're going to limit it, though, only to daylight hours for safety reasons and also the ships have to go really slow. They call it like a dead speed because they don't want to cause any more ripples than they have to in the water where they're still trying to clean up, along the shoreline, this oil spill. So it's sort of open.

CORNISH: So at this point, where is the oil and how are officials actually tracking it?

FEHLING: It's interesting because initially when it happened over the weekend, the winds were blowing it onto the shores, so that's where some of the oil went and it certainly caused trouble there with birds and that sort of thing. But then the winds shifted. A cold front came through and now it's blowing more offshore and southwest of Galveston Island.

And it's interesting in Texas because they have what's called the Texas Automated Buoy System. It's nine buoys that run up and down the coast from one end of the state to the other. And they feed back real-time information as to wind speed, how big the waves are, what the weather conditions are like and they can monitor that and determine where the spill might go and they say it's much more accurate than before they had this system, which was back in 1995, is when they first started to install it.

And actually, on Monday, they installed or launched yet another one of these buoys right where the oil was supposed to be going, the path of it. So they expect to get some really good data from that. And that's different because they've never tried this kind of rapid response with these buoys before. So they're hoping to get even more accurate information now.

CORNISH: Lastly, is there any sense of the impact so far on migratory birds?

FEHLING: So far, they've been trying to keep the birds literally away by using these devices that create kind of a big boom, a loud noise, to scare them away. They've found a number of birds, maybe around a dozen, that have been oiled. Some estimates are higher than that. It's really tough to tell. So it doesn't look like it's huge numbers right now, but there's no doubt there has been an impact on wildlife.

CORNISH: That's reporter Dave Fehling of Houston Public Media. Dave, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FEHLING: Sure thing.

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