Oil Spill and Trapped Students, Barge Hits and Damages Bridge in Galveston Causing Mayhem

By: Stephanie Bontorin | Published: May 16, 2024

On Wednesday morning, a barge slammed into a bridge connecting Pelican Island to Galveston Island, where the local Texas A&M campus is situated. Reports show that the barge hit a pillar underneath the bridge, causing structural damage and spilling a large amount of oil into the channel.

The bridge closure has essentially sealed off the only entry point for Pelican Island, where thousands of people will be stuck until the bridge reopens.

Details of the Accident

The bridge that leads out of North Galveston towards Pelican Island was struck by a barge at 9:50 a.m. on Wednesday, May 15.

A group of people wearing PPE and neon vests stand on a bridge with a large barge underneath

Source: @ArtCandee/X A group of people wearing PPE and neon

While a tugboat was backing out of Texas International Terminals, it lost control of two barges that it was pushing. Galveston County Navigation District bridge superintendent David Flores recounted the incident to the press. One of the barges, led by a tugboat, lost control and struck one of the major pillars on the bridge, hitting a fuel container in the process.

No Major Injuries Reported

Thankfully, no major injuries were reported at the time of the incident, and the damage to the bridge did not affect cars travelling along it.

A barge and a tugboat sit in buddy water beneath a large bridge with a number of workers and men walking along the roadway

Source: @galvcountyoem/X

One man was knocked off the barge and fell into the water. Thanks to fast-acting employees nearby, he was quickly recovered.

Current To Blame for Out-of-Control Boat

Flores says the current was too strong to control the barge’s path. As a result, a large boat struck the bridge, the fuel tanks, and two telephone poles nearby.

A black tugboat pulling a large barge in yellow and green containers in front of a large bridge and tall buildings

Source: Diliff/Wikipedia Commons

Boat travel is often perilous and inconsistent. Unlike driving a car, a boat is subject to the wind and the current of the water, which can be unpredictable and hard to navigate, even for experienced captains.

A similar incident in Baltimore Killed Six

A similar incident occurred in Baltimore less than two months ago. On March 26th, a cargo ship crashed into one of the major support columns of the Francis Key Bridge.

A large tanker boat sits collided with a destroyed bridge

Source: @MattDursh/X

The incident killed six construction workers who were performing maintenance repairs on the bridge around 4 in the morning. No cars were affected by the damage, but the investigation of the incident and demolition of the bridge is still ongoing.

The Effects of the Oil Spill Are Currently Unknown

The crash in Galveston resulted in oil spilling from the fuel barges onto the ships. Flores said it is currently unknown how much oil has been added to the channel due to the crash.

A body of water with slick black oil flowing throughout

Source: US Coast Guard/Wikipedia Commons

The fuel barges have a capacity of 30,000 gallons. Galveston Bay and crews are working to mitigate the spread of the oil and clean up the water. Spencer Lewis, a Galveston County spokesperson, said that more than 6.5 miles of waterway were shut down as a result of the spill.


No Significant Impact on International Commerce

While the port accepts international vessels, the area is mostly isolated and does not connect to the Intercoastal Waterway, which is part of the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest sea ports in the world.

A large barge moves down a narrow canal with grass on either side and the sun setting in the background

Source: Dietmar Rabich/Wikipedia Commons

Tankers and barges can be redirected to other ports of entry. At this time, no disruptions in commerce are expected.


Pelican Island

Although small and remote, Pelican Island hosts the Galveston location of Texas A&M University and Seawolf Park, a popular tourist attraction. Many tourists passing through Galveston head to Pelican Island to see the iconic fishing pier and decommissioned U.S. Navy vessels.

A low view of the black barge hitting the Pelican Island Causeway Bridge with two men overlooking the incident on the deck of the bridge

Source: @agatabottaro/X

Around 180 students, faculty, and staff remain on campus. The incident has disrupted the day for many residents and tourists, but it is unknown how many. First responders could safely pass over the bridge to assess the damage.


The Bridge Was in Poor Condition Before the Incident

During the 2023 National Bridge Inventory released last June, the Pelican Island Causeway Bridge was rated “Poor” condition.

A long straight bridge with a railway attached over a long body of water

Source: Jim Evans/Wikipedia Commons

The rating is given after a complete inspection of all individual components of the bridge. The deck, superstructure, substructure, and culvert are all examined to determine the suitability of the bridge. Inspectors rated the superstructure—or the component that absorbs the live traffic load—in poor condition. The rest of the components received satisfactory or better.


Plans To Replace the Bridge in 2025

In the summer of 2025, the Texas Department of Transportation had already scheduled the construction of a new project to replace the bridge.

A low view of a suspension bridge being built

Source: mason Kimbarovsky/Unsplash

The estimated cost is around $194 million. Over the past decade, over $12 million has been spent on standard maintenance and repairs. As Pelican Island becomes busier, the bridge will only get busier and experience more wear and tear. A bigger and better bridge is needed to support the growing population.


Texas A&M Closed Until Further Notice

The Galveston branch of Texas A&M will remain closed until at least next Friday.

The exterior of a university building with the words "student center" placed on the side next to a patch of green grass and manicured trees

Source: Oldag07/Wikipedia Commons

At the time of the event, university officials directed all non-essential employees to leave as soon as possible. They also warned those who live on campus that leaving the island might result in delays in returning.


Massive Delays in Traffic and Tourism

More than 9,000 people cross the Pelican Island Causeway daily. For now, the bridge closure is set to disrupt locals and tourists.

A long bridge leads into a city with tall colorful buildings and a small hill in the background

Source: Anthony Delanoix/Unsplash

Repairs are underway to fix the affected structures. Word has yet to be released if the new bridge will be moved up as a result of the damage.