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Oil cleanup far from over in Texas

Charlie Vela steered his 24-foot motorboat through a thin layer of oil Sunday on the chocolate-colored San Jacinto River as foot-long scraps of lumber and the bloated carcass of a pig floated past.

The state environmentalist cast an eye over the mingling of gasoline and diesel fuel that gave the water a rainbow sheen. Farther upstream, a towering pillar of black smoke marked the spot where patches of floating fuel have been burning for four days.

Despite the mess, Vela said the cleanup of the Houston Ship Channel is going well.

"Mother Nature helped a little bit with the wind picking up and stopping the rain," he said.

Floodwater and debris rushing along the swollen San Jacinto is thought responsible for four pipeline breaks that sent at least 1.2-million gallons of gasoline and crude oil into the river Thursday. Explosions from two leaking pipes ignited fires.

The ship channel, at of the nation's busiest ports, reopened to traffic late Sunday, after a small sunken tugboat was removed from near the San Jacinto's mouth.

As the black crude floated from the river's mouth through the channel and into the Gulf of Mexico, ships worked in strong currents to suck the oil into storage tanks. Barges helped with booms and skimmers.

"I think a week is a good working figure for resolution of the oil spillage. We may be longer in resolving some of the other issues," Coast Guard Capt. Richard Ford said. "It's too early to predict exactly what type of problems we are dealing with and how long it's going to take."

Ford said he wouldn't be surprised if all of about 25 petroleum pipelines running beneath the San Jacinto sustained structural damage in the floods.

The Coast Guard has ordered the pipelines inspected before allowing them to be reopened.

As the water began to recede, a new pollution problem was emerging _ household chemicals.

"People's houses have been destroyed . . . so we are getting all their paint, and all their disinfectants and all their pesticides and whatever they had on hand," Ford said.

The flooding that began Oct. 16 has killed at least 19 people in southeast Texas.

Most flooded rivers and lakes in the region continued to recede Sunday. Nearly 1,100 people are still housed at the shelters; that's down from 8,000 last week.