A harbor fixture for years, the huge drilling rig began to leak oil recently

A harbor fixture for years, the huge drilling rig began to leak oil recently

For 14 years the old, mobile offshore-drilling unit Zeus has sat rusting on the edge of the Freeport harbor channel, looming as a threat that could someday ooze oily goo into sensitive estuaries or, worse, topple over and close one of the busiest waterways in Texas.

“If that thing fell over it could shut down this port for months,” state Rep. Dennis Bonnen said Wednesday as he stood in the mud and weeds of what was a marine repair facility when the rig was first parked there.

The Angleton Republican noted that ships carrying a variety of cargo such as bananas, rice, petrochemicals and crude oil pass through the waterway every day.

As he talked, workers walked around on what looked like a giant mechanical three-legged spider to start removing an estimated 200,000 gallons of oily water, leftover fuel and lube oil and grease.

The Zeus was designed to float like a barge in the Gulf of Mexico and then jack itself up on its legs to become a platform for drilling for oil. Age and lulls in the drilling industry put it out of a job, and now it has sat idle and decomposing in Freeport for 14 years.

The environmental cleanup is the first the rig has had in all those years. It’s a cleanup that Bonnen and other officials are hoping will lead to the eventual departure of the hulking rig from a place where many say it poses a threat.

Emilio Sanchez, who operates Brownsville-based Sanship Inc., the vessel’s owner, said he hopes to find a buyer for the rig soon.

Sanchez declined to say how much he wants to sell the vessel for. A new owner could invest several million to get the rig back in service and do so for far less money and in less time than buying a new one.

High oil prices and demand for rigs to replace those damaged or destroyed in storms last year could put the Zeus back to work, he said.

The rig had already been out of work for 11 years years when Sanchez bought it, he said. He and officials weren’t sure of the history of the vessel, but Sanchez said it was built in 1959 and spent many years drilling wells in the Gulf.

Sanchez said he doesn’t know how much the cleanup would cost, but it would be many thousands and less than $1 million.

“The best thing about it is that it’s being done with the owner’s money,” said Brazoria County Commissioner Dude Payne. “This is one that doesn’t have to be cleaned up with the public’s money.”

Minor leak, major task

The cleanup was spurred on not by one of the catastrophes so feared by officials but by a very minor leak of oily water from the rusting hull.

Last month inspectors from the oil-spill prevention division of the Texas General Land Office discovered a light sheen on the water around the Zeus.

“We decided to do something about it as soon as they brought it to our attention,” Sanchez said.

Workers are having to make some repairs to the vessel to make it safe to work around. Blue rectangular tanks have been put on the shore to hold liquids removed from the vessel. From there the liquids will go to disposal facilities.

The cleanup should take three to six weeks.

Tracking down owners

Meanwhile, floating booms are containing the oil dripping into the channel.

The leak is very minor, said Richard Arnhart, regional oil-spill prevention and response director for the general land office. “It’s only about a cup a day.”

It was enough to spur Sanship to action. The company could have faced stiff penalties for not doing anything. Under a new state law, officials could have seized the vessel and its owner could have gone to jail if nothing had been done.

In June, Bonnen hosted a meeting with several state, federal and local agencies to see whether anything could be done about the Zeus.

Jeff Mink, Brazoria County environmental crime investigator, said he had some problems finding the vessel’s owners. At one time the rig had Mexican owners, he said.

The general land office considered adding it to a list of 429 abandoned vessels, including 16-foot fishing boats and old barges, that are being removed from waterways along the coast. “We didn’t have to do that because we found the owners,” said Greg Pollack, deputy state land commissioner.

Other out-of-work offshore-drilling units are sitting in Texas coastal areas such as Sabine Pass, but no others are in as bad a shape as the Zeus, Pollack said.

“Most are kept in good repair,” he said.

No training drill this time

Last year an interagency and industrial group called Brazosport Community Awareness and Emergency Response used various hypothetical scenarios involving the rig for a training drill.

The response to the real leak on the Zeus is being handled just as it was in the pretend drill, except that the vessel’s owners, not public agencies, are paying for it.

The old vessel has become such a landmark at the entrance of the Freeport channel, Arnhart said, “that when it does leave we’ll probably have to ask the Coast Guard to send out a notice to mariners so they won’t look for it anymore.”

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