Galveston bridge closure: Gulf Intracoastal Waterway closed after barge slammed into Pelican Island bridge, causing oil spill

GALVESTON COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) —A barge hit the Pelican Island Causeway Wednesday morning, damaging a portion of the bridge and causing an oil spill in the bay, according to the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office.

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway is shut down for approximately 6.5 miles between marker 350.5 to 357 as officials respond to this incident, County Judge Mark Henry said, adding that the oil spill is heading in that direction, so the U.S. Coast Guard decided to move forward with the closure.

The closure is a major setback for operations as significant maritime commercial traffic uses the waterway along the Texas coast.

A barge hit the Pelican Island Causeway Wednesday morning, causing a piece of the bridge to fall, according to the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office.

It also has implications for those on Pelican Island. It’s located north of Galveston, with that bridge as the only way on and off Pelican Island.

Galveston County officials confirmed that evacuations are underway for anyone who needs to leave Pelican Island but might not be able to return in the near future.

Officials are allowing drivers to pass the bridge one by one, at about 20 feet apart.

Harborside Drive is open to east-west traffic. However, drivers will not be able to travel north toward Pelican Island from 51st and Harborside. Galveston police officers are detouring traffic in the area.

Henry said at about 10 a.m., the vessel under tow broke loose and slammed into the railroad side of the bridge. The rail portion is not in use.

Officials told ABC13 that two crew members on the ship were either thrown or jumped off, but they were rescued quickly.

Vacuum gas oil is leaking from the barge, which has a capacity of 30,000 gallons.

Officials said the vessel is carrying a base petroleum product, and the Coast Guard is investigating reports of pollution.

A view from SkyEye showed about a 300-foot sheen on the water in the bay.

Officials said that crews are at the scene assessing the damage to the bridge, including four TxDOT inspectors.

Despite an initial outage, Henry said that the island has since switched over to a secondary power route.

Texas A&M University Galveston is on Pelican Island and shared an alert Wednesday about the bridge closure.

“Sea Aggie Alert: The Pelican Island Bridge is closed to all traffic at this time due to a barge strike. Electricity has been restored, and additional updates will be provided as the situation unfolds. The next scheduled update will be at 1200.”

TAMU is one of the main buildings on the island. The university held commencement ceremonies last week.

Pelican Island is also home to a number of attractions, including Seawolf Park and the Galveston Naval Museum, as well as several port-related industries.

Of note, the Battleship Texas has been in dry dock on Pelican Island as it undergoes major renovations. It re-entered the water in March and is expected to reopen sometime in 2025 or 2026.

What to know about Pelican Island Causeway

The causeway itself is 3,239 feet long with a span of 164.1 feet.

A proposal was put forth to replace the bridge, with construction to start in summer 2025.

It would stretch from SH 275 to Seawolf Parkway.

The Seawolf Parkway bridge connects Pelican Island to Galveston Island within the city of Galveston.

“The deterioration of the Seawolf Parkway bridge has progressed to the extent that any additional deterioration could result in sudden bridge closure. Since this bridge provides sole access to Pelican Island, bridge closure would effectively cut off access for all users, including evacuation and emergency services,” an overview of the project read.

The bridge was constructed in 1960.

Authorities are concerned that the bridge will be rendered unusable going forward because of Wednesday’s accident. It’s expected to remain closed until it’s deemed safe to use.

What spilled into the bay?

Officials say the liquid is vacuum gas oil. It’s described as a heavy oil that’s a byproduct of vacuum distillation of crude oil.

Honeywell, who was not involved in this incident, describes VGO as “a key feedstock for fluid catalytic crackers used to make transportation fuels and many other by-products.”

The oil is flammable when heated to high temperatures. With its makeup and heavy odor, it shouldn’t go into ditches, sewers or waterways if released.

Even small amounts can cause mild to severe pulmonary injury if breathed into the lungs. VGO may also irritate the eyes and skin.

Ingesting or inhaling heated vapors or mists could also cause headache, sleepiness, dizziness, slurred speech, and blurred vision. It may cause skin cancer.

The U.S. Coast Guard is responding and will determine the extent of the spill, as well as containment and cleanup.

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