Tropical Weather Gulf

Interstate 10 at the San Jacinto River was shut down in both directions after multiple barges collided with the bridge Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Houston, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Imelda. (Associated Press photo by Godofredo A. Vasquez)

A major barge strike on the Interstate 10 San Jacinto River Bridge is being considered a worst-case scenario for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits by environmental watchdogs, as a loaded barge sits on the northwest corner of the pits. 

Around midnight Friday, nine barges broke away from their moorings at the San Jacinto River Fleet, north of the San Jacinto Bridge. At least two barges collided with the bridge, causing considerable damage. 

The bridge is closed in both directions. Traffic is currently being diverted at I-10 east at Magnolia and west at Crosby-Lynchburg. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez says there is possible structural damage to the bridge, and it won’t reopen until inspections occur.

Texas Department of Transportation officials said the west side of the bridge’s supports took the brunt of the damage, but until the barges are moved and water levels drop, a full assessment can’t be done.

It’s not clear when the bridge will reopen, and SH-225 is recommended to use as an alternate route. Nearly 123,0000 vehicles normally cross the bridge each day, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. 

The Coast Guard said two barges — carrying 10,000 barrels of naphtha (a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture) and 17,000 barrels of monoethylene glycol (used to manufacture polyester fibers and antifreeze formulations) — are lodged beneath the I-10 San Jacinto River Bridge.   

A third barge, carrying 10,000 barrels of lube oil, is grounded on the northeast corner of the waste pits. 

The six remaining barges, four containing soybean oil, one carrying caustic oil and another with lube oil, were corralled for transport to fleet areas, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. 

“This is worst-case scenario for a barge strike,” Jacquelyn Young, executive director of Texas Health and Environment Alliance, said, who referenced a report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that identified a loaded barge grounding on top of the waste pits as worse case.  

Two of the barges that crashed into the I-10 bridge are owned by Canal Barge of Louisiana.

“All of us at Canal Barge Company fully understand the magnitude of what has occurred in the wake of Tropical Storm Imelda, and the concern and inconvenience this incident has caused to local residents, as well as the impact of the incident in the marine traffic here in Houston,” said Joe Tyson, senior vice president of operations for Canal Barge Company in a press conference Friday afternoon.

A similar barge crash happened back in February, leaving some lanes of the interstate closed for several weeks, residents said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it’s coordinating with the Coast Guard to ensure the responsible parties for the waste pits site is consulted before the grounded barge is moved to minimize damage to the site’s armored cap. 

In addition to the threat to the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, the Texas Department of Transportation is assessing the bridge, which suffered major damage. 

“We did an initial assessment very early (Friday) morning, but we have to do an additional assessment, which will require more extensive operations and specialized equipment,” Danny Perez, Texas Department of Transportation spokesman, said. 

Perez said they would also use divers to see if there was additional damage underwater. 

“At this point we’re only be able to make an assessment,” Perez said. “But we’re probably going to require some specialized contractors to come in to do a repair, which takes time because it’s not your typical repair.” 

Because of the closure, tolls on the Sam Houston Tollway Bridge are temporarily being waived if drivers want to connect to Highway 90 or Highway 225 to the Fred Hartman Bridge. 

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s staff is also helping the transportation department with any needs they might have. 

“We know both Houston and Austin TxDOT staff are working the assessments but inspection will be difficult due to high water,” Garcia said. “I have my team doing everything necessary to support their efforts. Harris County Pollution Control is also monitoring the air and have not detected any high readings that would raise concerns.” 

Friday’s barge strike is the second time this year the I-10 San Jacinto Bridge has been struck. In February the westbound side of I-10 closed after a barge struck a pillar. Repairs took about three months. 

This trend is something Baytown Mayor Brandon Capetillo and Baytown City officials hope gets the attention of state and federal representatives. In fact, earlier this week Capetillo and City Manager Rick Davis talked about this exact issue, just days before Friday’s event, with Senator John Cornyn, Senator Ted Cruz, Congressman Brian Babin and Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia. 

“The first topic we talked to them about was how important constructing a new bridge on I-10 would be for interstate commerce,” Capetillo said. “It’s not only a local issue but an issue of national importance.” 

“Moving forward, we need to continue to be vigilant in contacting officials in the decision-making process to demand action,” he added. 

Commissioner Garcia also hopes to replace the bridge and said it’s his long-term goal is for the Texas Department of Transportation and Harris County to work together to redesign this bridge so that they put a stop to these disruptions.   

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