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HOUSTON, March 24 (Reuters) - Ship traffic was halted for a third day on Sunday along a key stretch of the United State's busiest oil port as emergency workers siphoned fuels from the Houston Ship Channel that leaked from a massive fire at a nearby petrochemical storage facility. Fuels spilled after a 10-foot (3-meter) wide section of a containment barrier breached on Friday at Mitsui & Co Inc's Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) in Deer Park, Texas. Before the wall was repaired on Saturday, the breach sent fuels, water and fire suppressant foam to a waterway that connects Houston to the Gulf of Mexico.
The spill and cleanup has halted ship traffic since Friday on a 5-mile stretch of the channel serving petrochemical import and export terminals. That area likely will remain closed through Sunday, said U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Derby Flory.
On Sunday, there were 26 ships waiting to enter and 26 waiting to leave the channel, the Coast Guard reported, up from 23 seeking to enter and 20 waiting to leave on Saturday. The Houston Ship Channel is home to nine U.S. oil refineries that process 2.3 million barrels of oil per day (bpd), or 12 percent of the national total.
Port officials plan to send a small ship through the closed area on Sunday and then test it for benzene and volatile organic compounds, according to JJ Plunkett, port agent for Houston Pilots, whose members guide ships in and out of the channel.
If that test is successful, officials plan to begin moving ships through and examining each ship at a to-be-named location for decontamination, said Plunkett.
ITC said on Sunday it has removed about 13,000 barrels of fuel from one damaged tank and will continue to drain it and others. There were 15 tanks in an area that caught fire and 11 were damaged or destroyed.
"Our next step, over the next 24 hours, is to methodically go after each tank and remove all the product in the tanks," Brent Weber, an ITC senior vice president of sales and marketing, said on Sunday. Removal efforts were focused on one of the giant tanks where fuel exposed to the air had sparked a blaze on Friday.
State and federal authorities have begun investigations into the fire and the company's compliance with environmental and safety regulations. On Friday, Texas filed a lawsuit against ITC alleging unauthorized air pollution and unauthorized outdoor burning, citing the three-day fire and releases of benzene and volatile organic compounds into the air. The suit seeks at least $100,000 in civil penalties and costs. (Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)