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Oil-fouled ship lane south of Houston reopens

GALVESTON, Texas – The Coast Guard partially reopened one of the nation’s busiest seaports to ship traffic Tuesday, three days after a collision between a barge and a ship spilled up to 170,000 gallons of tarlike oil into the waters south of Houston.

Authorities said ships were being allowed through the Houston Ship Channel after their assessment teams deemed it was clear enough for passage. About 100 ships were waiting Tuesday morning to move through the channel, which connects southeast Texas to the Gulf of Mexico and is a key route for tourism and traffic to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

The Coast Guard began to allow more traffic after a test run of two ships: a Carnival cruise and a boat belonging to the Houston Pilots association. Officials expect it to take about three days for channel traffic to get back to normal.

The Coast Guard hopes to get as much oil out of the water as possible within the next 24 hours, deploying skimmers in some areas, as winds are expected to pick up today and move remaining oil toward the Texas shoreline.

A barge carrying 900,000 gallons of oil collided Saturday with a ship, causing oil to pour into the channel and leading to the closure.

Officials believe most of the oil is drifting out into the Gulf of Mexico and heading southwest, which should limit the impact on bird habitats around Galveston Bay as well as beaches and fisheries important to tourists. Workers ready to clean up oil residue are stationed in counties south of Galveston, officials said.

The channel, part of the Port of Houston, typically handles as many as 80 large ships daily, as well as about 300 to 400 tugboats and barges.