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Houston Ship Channel open to all traffic; daytime only through contaminated zone

Houston — The Houston Ship Channel is now considered to be "open" to all traffic, but transits through the seven-mile contamination zone between Tucker's Bayou and Light 116 are still limited to one-way daylight transits, the Captain of the Port said Wednesday.

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"Only outbound ships are currently sailing through the spill area," the Captain of the Port said in a Port Coordination Team conference call at 9 am CDT (1500 GMT). "The earliest that vessel traffic may return to 'normal' will be Friday-Saturday, but it could easily be Monday-Tuesday."

The stretch has been closed since March 22 in the aftermath of the fire last week at the Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm, which resulted in serious water contamination with benzene.

Carpenters Bayou and the Old River remain closed and ships in the contaminated area are not authorized to leave until decontamination is completed, the US Coast Guard said in a Marine Safety Information Bulletin Tuesday.

All vessels are required to check in and out via the USCG vessel traffic service during daylight hours and are required to transit through decontamination sites for both inbound and outbound sailings, according to the MSIB.

Inbound vessels are to call at Enterprise Dock 1 or the Shell Deer Park dock. Northbound transit through the Interstate 10 bridge are to check in at Southwest shipyard, while outbound traffic is to call for a contamination checks at sites located at either South of Lynchburg Ferry or Barbours Cut Lash Dock.

Outbound ships are to transit with a one-hour spacing through the impacted area. Tugs and barges are also restricted to daylight transit through the impacted area, but with a 40-minute spacing.

Twenty-eight ships were waiting Wednesday morning to sail outbound and 50 ships were awaiting inbound passage after 11 ships sailed outbound through the restricted area Tuesday, the Houston pilots said during the PCT call.

"There is concern that the queue of ships waiting inbound transit is growing," the pilots said.

Monday six ships had been cleared through the decontamination checks, with only one found contaminated, according to the USCG.

Since draft for ships looking to proceed through the contaminated zone remains at maximum of 34 feet fresh water, due to limitations in the decontamination areas, fully laden Medium Range products tankers pulling a draft of 36-40 feet and Aframax class and larger crude tankers are prohibited from leaving the ship channel area upstream of Tucker's Bayou until the VTS draft limitation has been relaxed.

Data from cFlow, Platts trade flow software, shows six tankers exceeding the 34-foot draft limitation, including the Medium Range tankers Altair and Port Moody, the Aframaxes Astro Saturn, Dali, NS Corona and Searuby and the Suezmax Eagle San Juan, have been sitting upstream from Tucker's Bayou since at least last Friday.

The Medium Range tanker Beryl left the controlled zone unladen Tuesday and is currently heading toward Corpus Christi, cFlow shows.

The suspension of ship movements in the ship channel affects the delivery and loading schedules of crude, petroleum and petrochemical products.

The 52-mile ship channel provides access from the Gulf of Mexico through Galveston Bay to various ports in Houston and other cities in the area that have many industrial facilities, including refineries, petrochemical plants and steel and metal facilities.

--Barbara Troner, barbara.troner@spglobal.com

--Edited by Richard Rubin, richard.rubin@spglobal.com