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Ship Channel Collision and spill close waterway

Congresspersons, Environmentalists express concern

Rep. Babin talking with U.S. Coast Guard Cap. Brian Penoyer.
Rep. Babin talking with U.S. Coast Guard Cap. Brian Penoyer.

HOUSTON – After the collision of two large cargo vessels on Monday, in foggy conditions, and the subsequent spill of thousands of barrels of a highly flammable toxic chemical known as MTBE, authorities and environmentalists have become concerned over the economic and environmental effects of the accident.

The Coast Guard closed the Houston Ship Channel to all ship traffic after the accident, affecting incoming and outbound cargo ships. Although the leak has been stopped, the investigation and clean-up are expected to take several days, according to Capt. Brian Penoyer of the Coast Guard.

After a helicopter tour of the site, by two Congressmen, they issued statements of concern and looked for answers to avoid the problems in the future.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee held a news conference after her tour, saying the $850 billion in business conducted at the port is at stake, and she thinks the answer is for the U.S. government to widen and deepen the channel.

U.S. Representative Brian Babin (TX-36) personally surveyed the damage and response today to the Houston Ship Channel collision, which occurred Monday within Babin’s Congressional District. Babin was provided with an aerial survey and briefing by U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer, who is overseeing the response. Babin offered his steadfast support and commitment to Capt. Penoyer and all those involved in cleaning up and reopening the channel.

“Since this unfortunate incident occurred Monday, I have been in close contact with the Port of Houston, our local mayors, and the U.S. Coast Guard,” said Congressman Babin. “I was glad to have had the opportunity today to personally survey the incident and response efforts. I believe the situation is being handled well and I am pleased with the progress being made towards reopening the ship channel. I commend U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Penoyer and the entire response team for their leadership and priority on public safety. I look forward to working closely with everyone involved to ensure that they have everything they need in terms of federal support so that they can safely and quickly reopen the channel.”

Need to Protect neighbors after disaster

Rep. Babin receives U.S. Coast Guard helicopter tour while surveying the damage and working on response efforts.
Rep. Babin receives U.S. Coast Guard helicopter tour while surveying the damage and working on response efforts.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC) called on Houston’s petrochemical giants to act now to protect their neighbors after a collision in the Houston Ship Channel led to a shelter-in-place order for several ship channel communities.

“Houston’s petrochemical industry is often called the ‘economic engine’ in the region,” said Adrian Shelley, Director of Air Alliance Houston, “For many residents of ship channel communities, though, the industry is an engine of uncertainty and fear. It is disproportionately low-income and minority communities that suffer these negative impacts.”

The people and environment of the Houston ship channel need better protection from the deadly risks associated with this industry. Today’s spill of MTBE in the ship channel is only the most recent disaster.

“Dangerous and deadly chemicals are also transported daily through our communities by trains,” said Juan Parras, Director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. “Residents do not know what is in the trains passing through their communities, what safeguards are in place to protect them, and what potential disasters could mean for them and their neighbors.”

Many remember the deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, TX last year. But the agricultural chemicals that caused that tragedy are only one class among many that present serious health and safety risks for many Houston area communities. Community members are unaware of and unprepared for the catastrophic risks that these chemicals present.

“The legislature needs to take advantage of modern cellular technology and provide citizens with real time notices of the how to protect themselves from toxic exposure,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, “We can alert people via reverse 911 calls or texts, emails, tweets and other social media, and live links to maps showing where the toxins are and where they are going.”

For more than one hundred years, Houston has been the source of massive economic activity and profits for the petrochemical industry. Today we call on these petrochemical giants to reinvest in their communities and protect the most vulnerable of their neighbors. People have the right to know the risks they face and that the companies creating those risks are doing everything in their power to minimize them.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition includes Air Alliance Houston, Pleasantville Environmental Coalition, Public Citizen, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, (t.e.j.a.s.), and Texas Organizing Project (TOP).