Chemical Spill in Houston Channel Brings 'Uncertainty and Fear' to Local Residents

A ship passes under the Fred Hartman bridge on the Houston Ship Channel. (Photo: USCG/James Dillard Date/Public Domain)

Chemical Spill in Houston Channel Brings 'Uncertainty and Fear' to Local Residents

Ship collision leaks unknown quantities of gasoline additive into water

An unknown quantity of dangerous chemicals spilled into the Houston Ship Channel on Monday after two 600-foot ships collided in foggy conditions, raising alarm among nearby residents who have suffered repeated hazards in this highly industrialized area.

One of the ships involved in the collision was carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of MBTE (Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether), a highly-flammable gasoline additive with a strong odor, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that MTBE is a potential carcinogen for humans.

"This is not a cargo chemical that is easy to clean up," said Brian Penoyer, commander of the Houston-Galveston Coast Guard District.

While there were no direct injuries reported from the collision, it was not immediately clear what the long-term impacts will be. The National Transportation Safety Board announced Monday it is sending a team to investigate the accident.

The Houston Channel is a major conduit connecting the Houston Port with the Gulf of Mexico. Surrounded by numerous refineries, and not far from oil fields, the channel handles bulk transport of petrochemicals and other products.

Nearby residents and environmental organizations have repeatedly raised concerns about the harmful impacts of frequent spills on human health, wildlife, and the marine ecosystem. The Healthy Port Communities Coalition released a statement Monday calling on "Houston's petrochemical giants to act now to protect their neighbors."

"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 risks go beyond ship collisions, local residents warn.

"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."

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