Galveston: Barge collides with Pelican Island bridge causing oil spill

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — A bridge in Galveston, Texas, crashed into a pier Wednesday, spilling oil into waters near busy shipping channels and closing the only road on a small neighbor island. No injuries were reported.

The impact sent pieces of the bridge connecting Galveston to Pelican Island tumbling over the ferry and closing part of the waterway as crews cleaned up the spill. The crash caused one person to fall from the boat into the water, but he quickly recovered and was not injured, Galveston County Sheriff’s Office Major Ray Nolan said.

Ports along the Texas coast are hubs of international trade, but experts said the conflict on the little-used waterway is unlikely to cause serious economic disruption. The island is on the opposite side of Galveston Island’s beaches, which attract millions of tourists each year.

David Flores, bridge superintendent for the Galveston County Navigation District, said the accident happened shortly before 10 a.m. when a tugboat operator lost control of two boats while pushing them.

“The current was really bad, the tide was high,” Flores said. “He lost it.”

Pelican Island is only a few miles wide and is home to Texas A&M University in Galveston, a large shipyard and industrial facilities. Fewer than 200 people were on campus when the clash occurred, and eventually everyone was allowed to drive over the bridge to leave. The Institute of Marine and Oceanographic Research said it would remain closed until at least Friday. Students living on campus were allowed to remain, but university officials warned those living on campus and those moving out “should be prepared to remain off campus for an unknown period of time.”

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The accident comes weeks after a freighter crashed into a support column of the Francis Key Bridge in Baltimore on March 26. Six construction workers.

The tug in Texas was pushing bunkers, which are fuel barges for ships, Flores said. The barge, owned by Martin Petroleum Co., has a 30,000-gallon capacity, but it’s unclear how much spilled into the bay, Galveston County spokesman Spencer Lewis said. About 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometers) of the waterway has been closed due to the spill, he said.

The affected area is miles from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which sees frequent shipping traffic, and the Houston Ship Channel, a major shipping channel for ocean-going vessels. Aside from the spill’s environmental impact, the region is unlikely to see major economic disruption as a result of the accident, said Marcia Burns, a marine transportation expert at the University of Houston.

“Because Pelican Island is a small place, it’s not in the center of commercial events, and the impact is not catastrophic,” Burns said. “It’s a relatively small impact.”

A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department boat monitors the Galveston Ship Channel after a barge hit the old railroad bridge at the Pelican Island Bridge in Galveston, Texas, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.  The collision shut down the only road access to and from Pelican.  Island.  (AP via Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News)

A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department boat monitors the Galveston Ship Channel after a barge hit the old railroad bridge at the Pelican Island Bridge in Galveston, Texas, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. The collision shut down the only road access to and from Pelican. Island. (AP via Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News)

Galveston police officers talk to drivers trying to get to Pelican Island on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Galveston, Texas.  The bridge, the only access to and from the island, was closed due to a barge collision.  (AP via Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News)

Galveston police officers talk to drivers trying to get to Pelican Island on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Galveston, Texas. The bridge, the only access to and from the island, was closed due to a barge collision. (AP via Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News)

On the bridge, a large piece of broken concrete and debris from the railroad tracks hung over the side and over the barge that hit the tracks. Flores said the railroad only served as protection for the structure and was never used.

The Pelican Island Causeway Bridge, which opened in 1960, was rated “poor” according to the Federal Highway Administration’s 2023 National Bridge Inventory released last June.

A bridge’s overall rating is based on whether the condition of any of its individual components — deck, superstructure, substructure, or culvert, if any — is rated poor or poor.

In the case of the Pelican Island Causeway Bridge, inspectors rated the deck in “satisfactory condition”, “fair condition” and the superstructure – or component that absorbs live traffic load – in “poor condition”.

The Texas Department of Transportation is scheduled to begin construction in the summer of 2025 on a project to replace the bridge. The project was estimated to cost $194 million. In documents presented during a virtual public meeting last year, the department said the bridge “has reached the end of its design life and should be replaced.” The agency said it has spent more than $12 million on bridge maintenance and repairs over the past decade.

The bridge has a main steel span measuring 164 feet (50 meters) and was last inspected in December 2021, according to federal data. It is not clear from the data whether the state survey took place after the Central Highway Administration compiled the data.

A tugboat works to turn a barge off the Pelican Island Bridge in Galveston, Texas, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.  (AP via Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News)

A tugboat works to turn a barge off the Pelican Island Bridge in Galveston, Texas, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (AP via Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News)

A barge collided with a bridge in Galveston, Texas on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, spilling oil into the surrounding waters.  The bridge to Pelican Island, just north of Galveston, was hit by a barge around 9:30 a.m.  said Ronnie Varela, with Galveston's Office of Emergency Management.(AP via KTRK)

A barge collided with a bridge in Galveston, Texas on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, spilling oil into the surrounding waters. The bridge to Pelican Island, just north of Galveston, was hit by a barge around 9:30 a.m. said Ronnie Varela, with Galveston’s Office of Emergency Management.(AP via KTRK)

As of 2011, the average daily traffic on the bridge is about 9,100 cars and trucks.

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Lozano reported from Houston. Associated Press reporters Christopher L. Keller, in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Valerie Gonzalez in McAllen, Texas; Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas; and Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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