As crews began another day of cleanup after a collision late Friday led to more than 9,000 barrels of chemicals spilling into the Houston Ship Channel, representatives for several organizations along Galveston Bay said they were already starting to see the effects on marine life.
The state of Texas ordered Galveston Bay oyster beds closed and advised people against eating seafood from the upper bay — both as a precaution — and an environmental group reported a large fish kill.
The 755-foot tanker Genesis River collided with two barges being pulled by a tugboat, causing one barge to capsize and piercing another, which then began leaking a feedstock blend called Reformate similar to automobile gasoline, said Greg Beuerman, an assistant public information officer for Kirby Inland Marine, which owns the barges.
Each of the barges was fully loaded with about 25,000 barrels of product, and about 9,000 barrels leaked into the ship channel, according to government reports.
The chemical is flammable and toxic when inhaled, ingested or in contact with skin, League City officials said.
In response to the spill, officials with the Texas Department of State and Health Services temporarily closed Galveston Bay oyster beds as a precaution while state officials investigate the effects, said Chris Van Deusen, the director of media relations for the department.
The move left local oyster harvesters worried.
“We’re just praying away, at this point,” said Lisa Halili, one of the owners of San Leon-based Prestige Oysters. “There are beautiful oysters out there, but who knows when the bay will open back up?”
The beds were still closed Monday afternoon, Van Deusen said.
“This was just to be on the safe side,” Van Deusen said. “We didn’t want to get into the situation where people were harvesting them, only for us to recall them later.”
Public oyster season is over, but some private leaseholders could still be harvesting some oysters outside of public season, Van Deusen said.
For some companies like Prestige Oysters, the closure is damaging to the bottom line, Halili said.
“As we go into the summer months, that’s when we get our summer harvest, those oysters that have been sitting and growing for six months,” she said. “Now, we’re just playing the sit-and-wait game.”
The state health services department also has asked residents not to eat seafood from the upper parts of Galveston Bay while investigators continue gathering information, Van Deusen said.
While several state officials on Monday said most of what they are doing is precautionary, officials with a Houston-based environmental group said it made a troubling discovery.
Officials with Houston-based Galveston Bay Foundation found more than 1,000 dead fish at their property in Kemah, later confirmed as a fish kill by investigators with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Kills and Spills Team.
“Our investigation found around 1,000 dead fish, consisting mainly of small 1-to-2-inch fish like shad and Gulf menhaden with some sheepshead, flounder, catfish and mullet mixed in at various sizes,” said Julie Hagen, spokeswoman for the department’s coastal fisheries division.
The loss of about 1,000 fish is cause for investigation, but should not have a significant effect on marine life, Hagen said. Investigators have responded to fish kills over miles of beach that number in the millions, to put it in perspective.
News of the dead fish, particularly the flounder, isn’t good for the health of Galveston Bay marine life, said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation.
“Reformate does evaporate, but there’s still some in the water column,” Stokes said. “And flounder live on the bottom of the bay, so this shows they were impacted in some fashion.”
On the whole, however, local environmentalists are pleased with the response to the spill so far, Stokes said.
“They’ve poured a lot of manpower and equipment into it, which is what you need to do in these unfortunate instances,” Stokes said. “There’s certainly some impact, because a spill did happen. But you need to document it.”
Officials with the U.S. Coast Guard, Texas General Land Office and Kirby Inland Marine, which owns the barges, in the aftermath of the collision set up a unified command post to address the spill, and by late Sunday afternoon, crews had deployed about 20,550 feet of absorbent and containment boom, used to clean up spills, around the barges and elsewhere, officials said.
Officials with the unified command post did not respond to a request for comment about the salvage by deadline Monday. But salvage crews also secured the two barges and began work Sunday to remove cargo, officials said Sunday.
Once all the cargo is removed, the barges can be moved, officials said.
The barge spill comes on the heels of another major setback for Galveston Bay. A tank fire at International Terminals Co. in Deer Park spilled contaminants into the water, Stokes said.
While that spill was bigger than the barge spill by volume, this most recent setback might prove more troublesome, Stokes said.
“I think this is smaller, but it happened in an open area of the bay, allowing material to escape farther in a shorter period of time,” Stokes said. “The ITC fire spilled into the ship channel, but wind was blowing the product and keeping it in the ship channel.”