GALVESTON, Texas (AP) - 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 tar-like 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 cleanup operations progress is to the point that there is minimal danger of contamination to the commercial maritime traffic and allowing limited transit during daylight hours," said Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer. "This is an important accomplishment for every person working this response."
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 Wednesday 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.
The amount of oil spilled was much less than such major U.S. disasters as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound, and the Deepwater Horizon spill, which resulted in 100 million gallons of oil entering the Gulf of Mexico four years ago.
But it still required a major cleanup effort by state authorities who laid down miles of oil boom and deployed yellow-uniformed workers to pick up black, quarter-sized "tar balls" washing up on shore. Wildlife protection workers from the local Audubon Society picked up birds stained in oil for cleaning.
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.