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Barge hits bridge connecting Galveston and Pelican Island, causing oil spill: NPR

Workers inspect the site where a barge crashed into the Pelican Island Bridge Wednesday in Galveston, Texas.

David J. Phillip/AP

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David J. Phillip/AP

Workers inspect the site where a barge crashed into the Pelican Island Bridge Wednesday in Galveston, Texas.

David J. Phillip/AP

GALVESTON, Texas — A barge slammed into a bridge pier in Galveston, Texas, on Wednesday, spilling oil into waters near busy shipping channels and closing the only road to a small nearby island. No injuries were reported.

The impact caused pieces of the bridge, which connects Galveston to Pelican Island, to fall on top of the barge and closed a section of waterway so crews could clean up the spill. The accident knocked a man off the vessel and into the water, but he was quickly recovered and was not injured, said Maj. Ray Nolen of the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office.

Ports along the Texas coast are hubs for international trade, but experts say the collision is not expected to cause serious economic disruption since it occurred on a less-used waterway. The island is on the other side of the Galveston Island beaches which attract millions of tourists each year.

The accident occurred shortly before 10 a.m. after a tugboat operator pushing two barges lost control, said David Flores, bridge superintendent for the Galveston County Navigation District.

“The current was very strong and 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 collision occurred, and all were eventually allowed to use the bridge to leave. The Marine and Maritime Research Institute said it planned to remain closed at least until Friday. Students who live on campus were allowed to remain there, but university officials warned those who live on campus and leave “should be prepared to remain off campus for an indefinite period of time.”

The accident came weeks after a cargo ship crashed into a support column of the Francis Key Bridge in Baltimore on March 26, killing six construction workers.

The tugboat in Texas was pushing replenishment barges, which are fuel barges for ships, Flores said. The barge, which is owned by Martin Petroleum, has a capacity of 30,000 gallons, but it’s unclear how much flowed into the bay, said Spencer Lewis, a Galveston County spokesman. He said about 6.5 miles of the waterway were closed because of the spill.

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

“Because Pelican Island is a smaller location, not in the heart of commercial events, the impact is not as devastating,” Burns said. “It’s a relatively smaller impact.”

At the bridge, a large piece of broken concrete and debris from the railroad tracks hung over the side and above the barge that had entered the passage. Flores said the railroad tracks are only to protect the structure and have never been used.

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

A bridge’s overall rating depends on whether any of its individual components – the deck, superstructure, substructure or culvert, if applicable – are rated poor or inferior.

In the case of the Pelican Island Causeway, inspectors rated the deck as “satisfactory condition,” the substructure as “fair condition” and the superstructure – or the component that absorbs the actual traffic load – as “poor state “.

The Texas Department of Transportation was expected to begin construction in the summer of 2025 on a project to replace the bridge with a new one. The project was estimated at $194 million. In documents provided during a virtual public meeting last year, the ministry said the bridge had “reached the end of its design life and needed to 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 that measures 164 feet (50 meters), and federal data shows it was last inspected in December 2021. The data is unclear whether a state inspection has took place after the Federal Highway Administration compiled the data.

The bridge had an average daily traffic of about 9,100 cars and trucks, according to a 2011 estimate.

NPR News

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