By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
And violations happen regularly. According to TNRCC records, municipal sewage systems dumped about 20 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the bay and its tributaries in the last 14 months. Untreated wastewater contains high concentrations of pathogens, chlorine, ammonia and nutrients that contaminate shellfish, deplete oxygen levels and pose a danger for swimmers. The figure doesn't include the eight million gallons of sewage the City of Houston accidentally poured into Brays Bayou in July 1998, killing more than 16,000 fish.
Industrial plants don't exceed their permits as often -- at least as far as anyone knows. If a permittee discharges a chemical in gross excess of its limits, the company is supposed to notify TNRCC immediately. In addition, the plants must regularly test themselves and confess any violations in monthly reports.
The Sierra Club's Carman compares the self-reporting system to motorists speeding on the freeway: How many turn themselves in to the cops when they get home? "These companies are not going to self-report violations," Carman says. "There are so many ways that they can get around the system."
True, admits a TNRCC official: "Built into that system are certain problems, but it's the system we have."
It's unlikely companies could ever approach the dumping volumes of perhaps the most prolific pollution source of all: storm-water runoff. Every time it rains, tons of pollutants -- pesticides, oil and grease, heavy metals, animal feces, PCBs -- wash into Galveston Bay, especially from high-density urban areas. For obvious reasons the amounts are almost impossible to peg with certainty, but estimates indicate that these "non-point" sources constitute the bulk of the contaminants that plague bay waters.
The consequences of pollution, especially long-term exposure to multiple contaminants, are not well understood. Contact with toxic substances can have an acute effect on marine life -- the state Parks and Wildlife Department responds to a pollution-related fish kill on an average of once every three weeks. Human health can also be adversely affected by contact with pathogens, as happened last summer when more than 400 people got sick after eating tainted bay oysters, forcing a halt to the summer harvest.
But less obvious impacts may be the farthest-reaching. The increased incidence of fish with severe skin lesions, for example, has made an impression on commercial fishermen. Shrimper Jake Mills says the deep, cancerlike sores on fish he catches as well as the problems he's having with the shrimp are more than troubling. "I ain't never seen so many sick fish in my nets," Mills says.
And the most dramatic problem for the bay may be one that can hardly be seen at all: the steady decline of the micro-organisms on which other marine creatures depend for food. A 1995 Texas A&M study warned that the food shortage could send the bay's oyster population into a tailspin -- marked by some of the trends that Joe Nelson has experienced -- from which it might not recover. "Only a rough projection of the future impact of declining food supplies can be made for Galveston Bay," the study concluded.
"The data suggest, however, that if the present rates of decline continue, the oyster populations of Galveston Bay will cease to spawn shortly after the year 2000 and that significant impacts to the oyster industry may occur four to six years prior to that time."
It's a scene right out of Field & Stream: a powerboat bobbing silently on a crisp early fall morning, a couple of buddies joking as they wait patiently for a fresh-fish dinner. On the near bank, two others stand beside white buckets as they reel and cast, reel and cast.
Rather than a pristine mountain lake, however, the fishermen have chosen Bayport Channel as their honey hole. And within 100 yards of their dangling lines, an underwater pipe of the Gulf Coast Waste Management Authority bubbles toxic soup into the water, a combination of dozens of compounds totaling thousands of pounds a day that leave a strange gray sheen on the surface.
Joe Nelson leans over the edge of his skiff, dips his hand into the discharge and puts palm to lip. "Shit," he says, spitting, but his mouth is already numb and will remain that way for the rest of the day.
Gulf Coast, which processes waste from area petrochemical plants, isn't doing anything illegal. The company has a wastewater permit from the TNRCC, and state and county records show that the company usually stays within its permit limits.
That doesn't mean it's a good idea to eat fish or oysters from the Bayport Channel, however. The channel, as well as about 50 percent of the entire bay, is closed to oyster harvesting because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. And according to a 1996 TNRCC assessment, "lead remains a possible concern [in the Bayport Channel] because the limited data available indicate possible excessive levels."
Bayport does not appear on the official state list of impaired waterways, which is used to determine priorities for further study and cleanup. The reason: It allegedly meets the standard for all of its "designated uses," which include "non-contact recreation" (boating and fishing) and "high aquatic life" (a variety of healthy water creatures). Nelson doesn't buy it, noting the absence of birds in the area and other indicators of the channel's ill health. "In my opinion, it's a damn joke," he says. "I don't think they know what they're dealing with."
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city