Sticky 'Bunker' Oil Spill in Texas's Galveston Bay Makes for a Tough Cleanup

oil spill
As many as 168,000 gallons of a dense, sticky type of fuel oil spilled into Texas’ Galveston Bay when a barge and a ship collided on Saturday. US Coast Guard/Handout via Reuters

As many as 168,000 gallons of a dense, sticky type of fuel oil spilled into Texas’s Galveston Bay when a barge and a ship collided on Saturday. The spill has temporarily shut down the 50-mile Houston Ship Channel, one of the world’s biggest waterways for oil and chemical transport, and rendered a multibillion-dollar recreational area unusable in peak tourist season, The Texas Tribune reports.

The barge was carrying a black, molasses-like “bunker” oil used in ships called RMG 380. It is a “residual fuel,” meaning it is the heavier material that remains after the more valuable fuel components of crude oil have been removed in a refinery. Due to its high density, bunker oil is highly persistent: much of the oil may sink, remaining in the bay for anywhere from several months to several years.

The spill occurred in a popular spot for shorebirds, just before the migratory season is set to begin. Oiled birds, some dead, were found in the area of the spill. Three ducks and a loon are being rehabilitated, according to The New York Times.

“Fuel oil is not easy to clean off anything,” Jim Suydam, a spokesman for the General Land Office, the state agency leading the cleanup efforts with the U.S. Coast Guard, told the Tribune. “It sticks to things.”

Over 380 people and a fleet of vessels are working to mitigate the damage from the spill according to NPR. As of Sunday afternoon, oil from the spill has been detected 12 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

Galveston Bay is just up the coast from Port Arthur, Texas, where, if built, the hotly contested Keystone XL pipeline would end. Heavy tar sands crude, transported via the pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, would leave the pipeline in Port Arthur, and some say much of it will eventually be loaded onto barges to be sold in Asia, increasing Texas’s Gulf Coast oil exports.

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