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Houston Ship Channel blocked by fire-damaged ship, awaiting tow

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The Houston Ship Channel, which links the busiest U.S. petrochemical port to the Gulf of Mexico, was blocked on Monday afternoon by a fire-damaged ship, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The Jo Kiri, a small tanker, was headed north along the waterway and near Eagle Point when it reported smoke in the engine room, the Coast Guard said. The fire was out as of 1450 CST (2050 GMT), and the ship was waiting to be towed to the nearest berth. There was no estimate of when the ship would be moved.

The Jo Kiri, which usually carries petrochemicals, was headed to the Vo Pak terminal in the northern section of the channel, according to Reuters vessel tracking data.

The Jo Kiri is operated by privately held Jo Tankers AS, which was acquired by Stolt-Nielsen Ltd in November.

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A spokesman for Stolt-Nielsen was not available to discuss the fire.

While the channel is blocked, five refineries in the Houston metropolitan area, with a combined crude intake equal to 7 percent of U.S. refining capacity, will not be able to receive crude oil from tankers, though they are also supplied through an extensive pipeline network.

The three refineries in Texas City, Texas, with a combined crude oil refining capacity equal to 4 percent of the national total, are located south of the blocked section of the channel and tankers can still reach those plants.

Most refineries can run several days with crude oil in storage before production must be curtailed.

(Reporting by Liz Hampton, Marianna Parraga and Erwin Seba; Editing by Leslie Adler)