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Pelican Island Bridge's Future is Uncertain After Barge Strike

Barge stuck in bridge after allision
Courtesy Galveston County Office of Emergency Management

Published May 16, 2024 8:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

Pelican Island, the home of Texas A&M Maritime Academy, is cut off from the rest of the state for an indefinite period after a barge hit the only bridge connecting it to Galveston. 

A petroleum barge belonging to Martin Marine hit the bridge on Wednesday, plowing through a railway span and then damaging the separate, parallel road bridge. A section of the rail bridge collapsed, and the barge was damaged enough to release 1,000-2,000 gallons of vacuum gas oil into the water. 

On Thursday, officials said that the allision left the roadway bridge unstable, and that it will be closed to all island-bound car traffic for the forseeable future. However, cars have been allowed to cross the bridge in order to leave the island, and pedestrian traffic has been allowed in both directions. There were only a few hundred people on the island at the time of the casualty. 

The barge was carrying about 960,000 gallons of product when the accident happened, and the tank that was damaged held about 160,000 gallons. Little of that spilled, according to the Coast Guard, and the environmental effects are expected to be limited. About 5,600 gallons of product were recovered from the barge's deck, and skimmers have picked up about 600 gallons of oil-water mixture from the waterway. 

The Coast Guard boomed off the area to contain the spill, forcing the temporary closure of this section of the commercially-important Intracoastal Waterway. The barge also remains stuck in place, trapped by the weight of the bridge span it collapsed. 

Rick Freed, vice president of Martin Marine, said at a press conference that the tug and barge had a "coupling issue" in the leadup to the casualty. The Coast Guard described it as a "break in the coupling." Speaking to ABC, Freed declined to give further details, citing an ongoing investigation. 

The bridge's stability is uncertain, especially once the barge is removed, local officials said. It was already aging and due for replacement. While the discussion about its usability continues, the loss of access will have an effect on Texas A&M's campus. It is closed to students and most employees (except for essential life and safety personnel) through the weekend.