As the harsh smell of raw crude oil grows overpowering, Joe Nelson peers over the bow of his aluminum skiff. "There it is," he says, pointing to a 20-foot-wide ribbon of black that winds across the murky waters of Galveston Bay. The oysterman follows the trail of oil for about four miles until he finds the source, a frothy circle bubbling from the depths. A closer look reveals four other, smaller founts, apparently coming from breaks in an underwater pipeline. Nearby, shrimp boats trawl for the day's catch.
Nelson marks the area with a long bamboo pole, radios the authorities and heads toward his oyster operation at Smith Point in East Bay. The oil fumes have made his throat raw, which he exacerbates with a cigarette. Sweeping a weather-beaten hand from left to right, he laments that the fish used to leap out of the water by the dozen from one end of Galveston Bay to the other. "We had pompano all over this bay," Nelson says, listing several species that have declined significantly over the years: red stingaree, alligator gar, eels, hickory shad, batwing skates.
"You're seeing less marine life in the bay than you saw ten or 15 years ago," he says. "There's just so many species that's going, and nobody's paying attention to it."
However, Nelson is most concerned about a species that's still around: oysters. Business hasn't been great the past few years, and it's not just because prices haven't kept pace with costs. An average oyster should mature into a size suitable for market in about 14 to 18 months, but they seem to be taking a lot longer these days. By his estimation, 75 percent of the oysters in the bay are under the minimum size. "There's plenty of small oysters," he says, "but they aren't growing."
Though he can't prove why the crop is failing to thrive, Nelson has his guesses. Their food supply is shrinking, he believes, caused in part by pollution in the bay's highly sensitive waters. He also thinks that the filter feeders are stunted by an accumulation of toxics in their tissues. "There's got to be a correlation," he says.
But Nelson is no scientist, and although his anecdotal evidence of declining populations in the bay resonates among his fellow commercial fishermen, it doesn't hold much water in the scientific community. Not that there's much evidence to the contrary: What little scientific literature exists on the subject of pollution in Galveston Bay invariably notes how much literature there isn't. "There's no systematic testing of the bay," says Marvin Legator. The toxicologist at University of Texas Medical Branch has studied the bay and agrees with Nelson's general assessment.
There may be little hard data to support Nelson's conclusions, but no one disputes that pollutants get dumped into the bay -- in huge quantities. A 1993 study by the Galveston Bay Estuary Program concluded that more than four trillion gallons of wastewater flow into the bay every year, containing about 45 million pounds of oil and grease, 8.4 million pounds of lead, mercury and other heavy metals, and unknown tons of other toxic substances, including carcinogens. Sources include permitted discharges from industrial and sewage treatment plants, storm-water runoff, oil and chemical spills, and tainted water from the various tributaries that feed the bay.
The many state and federal agencies charged with monitoring and controlling pollution in the bay don't really know the effects of these discharges on marine life. They're hamstrung by poor coordination and a lack of funding for studies and personnel. But they agree on one general fact: Galveston Bay has improved dramatically since the dark days 30 years ago when the Houston Ship Channel was declared one of the most polluted waterways in the country. "Let me tell you, it's a hell of a lot better than it was," says Elna Christopher, a spokeswoman for the General Land Office, which manages certain types of oil spills.
That's true by some measures. Tighter federal clean-water mandates -- and, in some cases, court orders -- have forced municipalities to clean up their sewage systems. Spill response has improved, reducing damage from accidents. And the Galveston Bay Estuary Program helped craft a long-range plan to address some of the bay's thorniest issues, such as how to control polluted runoff from urban areas.
But by other measures, the agencies may be dead wrong. Several studies of the bay seem to indicate that the bottom of the food chain, which sustains oysters and shrimp, is on the decline; the same goes for fish populations. Surveys show increasing destruction of vital coastal wildlife habitat. Another study found potential elevated cancer risks for people who eat lots of Galveston Bay seafood.
This disturbs Richard Moore, a commercial shrimper and president of PISCES, an association of bay shrimpers. The catch in 1999 has been poor, growth has slowed, and a number of shrimp are infected with a disease that blackens their gills (though it apparently has no ill effect on humans). "When you look at the data," Moore says, "the numbers have come down dramatically, and the problems are increasing."
Though some of the trouble can be traced to such natural conditions as drought and above-average temperatures that have warmed the bay's water, Moore says climate isn't the biggest issue facing bay shrimpers. "[Of the] two things I have to contend with, loss of habitat is number one," he says. "Number two is pollution."
"Shit rolls downhill," Moore says, with the salty black humor that so many in his business seem to possess, "and the commercial fisherman is sitting at the bottom."
The oil slick discovered by Joe Nelson percolated for another seven or eight hours before the offending pipe was finally located and capped. By then, four different agencies had become involved: the General Land Office, the U.S. Coast Guard, the state Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Railroad Commission.
The GLO dispatched a boat to the scene, but the investigator was confused by a second spill he discovered en route. The Coast Guard flew over the area but somehow failed to spot the oil. The Railroad Commission had a different problem: "Normally, when we get a spill, we don't have the resources to get a boat in the water," says investigator Gabe Macias. Finally the Coast Guard located the ribbon.
As it turned out, the Railroad Commission had jurisdiction, since the spill was oil-related, was less than 240 barrels and came from a pipeline. Had it been a chemical spill, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission would have taken the lead. Had the spill been more than 240 barrels or had it leaked from a ship, then the GLO would have assumed command.
If this sounds confusing, even regulators have problems. "It's kind of a mess," says one agency official, "but we usually figure it out."
According to Railroad Commission reports, the pipe was eventually deemed to belong to Vintage Petroleum, which had a line in the vicinity. Vintage sent down a diver, who discovered that it wasn't the company's pipe after all, but one of the many abandoned or unmapped lines that lie across the bay bottom like spaghetti. The next day a commission inspector went to look at the scene but found no trace of oil. The quantity listed on the spill report was "unknown."
Pipe blowouts are actually common in Galveston Bay. Lines corrode, and the wave and tidal action can cause breaks as well. Spills from barges and leaky or sunken boats also happen regularly. So do deliberate violations of the law: Callers to the Coast Guard hot line frequently report trucks and boats dumping oil-contaminated liquids into the bay or one of its feeders. Sometimes a sheen of unknown origin and size simply appears on the water.
Many of the spills are of a relatively small quantity; a quart here, a couple of gallons there. Others are bigger: On June 28 an underground Exxon pipeline burst on Alexander Island in the Houston Ship Channel. Exxon first reported that about 50 barrels of oil had spilled. By the time the spill was cleaned up more than a month later, the estimate had climbed to almost 3,000 barrels, or 126,000 gallons.
And in an infamous 1990 incident, a barge collision in the Ship Channel released 700,000 gallons of crude, forcing temporary closure of the entire bay to fishing.
How much gets spilled in the bay annually? The General Land Office has logged 549 oil-related spills since January 1. Railroad Commission records, which did not mention before May whether spills reached a body of water, note 31 spills to water since May 1. Those totaled about 100,000 gallons, though another 24 had amounts listed as "unknown." The TNRCC's database for the region, which includes chemical as well as oil spills, lists 286 incidents in 1999 (mostly in the Galveston Bay system) involving crude oil, diesel fuel, benzene, transformer oil (which could contain PCBs), sulfuric acid, chloroform and a host of other toxics, as well as the usual plethora of unknowns.
The databases overlap a bit, but with no apparent rhyme or reason. They're also hard to navigate, use different formats and often leave key fields blank, complicating efforts to add them together; none of the agencies can total toxic inputs to the bay in any reliable way. "I think it's pretty outrageous that there is still so much waste and [so many] spills and releases that wind up in the bay," says Neil Carman of the Sierra Club's Lone Star chapter. "I don't think anybody really knows how much that's happening."
Whatever the amount, state officials don't seem especially worried about it. In fact, the GLO and the American Petroleum Institute are currently pushing an experiment to test a chemical for use in dispersing oil spills. The experiment calls for the dispersant to be tested in the field, in real-life conditions. Twelve hundred gallons of oil will be poured into shallow water, followed by the chemical. The "field" is Galveston Bay.
The state has a better handle on how much pollution flows from industrial pipes and municipal sewage treatment plants, known as "point sources." Each facility -- anywhere from about 950 to 1,400 of them, depending on who's counting -- has a permit that lists maximum wastewater flows and pollutant concentrations, and the TNRCC monitors data and conducts inspections for compliance. A 1992 study estimated that point sources annually discharged almost 200 million gallons of wastewater into the bay. The effluent included 4.8 million pounds of ammonia, 1.45 million pounds of oil and grease, and more than 580,000 pounds of miscellaneous toxics.
The permit limits are based on a series of complex scientific calculations, but basically they're supposed to ensure that the pollutants don't pose a threat to the ecosystem, either alone or together with other discharges in the same area. The computer models, however, don't take violations of the limits into account.
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 ofField & 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."
If the TNRCC's own documents are any indication, he's right. The agency's 1998 Texas Water Quality Inventory identifies the presence of four industrial outfalls, including Gulf Coast's. It also mentions a 1990 fish kill caused by a vinyl acetate spill from the Hoechst Celanese plant. The report is not current enough to include this year's August 12 kill from unknown causes. The rest of the report includes almost no information: published studies, none; ambient toxicity monitoring, none; use assessment, "not assessed."
Donna Phillips, who manages the water section of the TNRCC's Houston regional office, says the agency stopped its quarterly sampling of all state waters in 1996 and went to a "random" testing program. Since then, the Bayport Channel had gone untested until October -- after a complaint by Nelson. Results from that test show a few minor problems, but no egregious violations. "Nothing jumps out," Phillips says.
Things rarely jump out when it comes to testing water quality and marine life in Galveston Bay, because it doesn't happen that much. Different agencies keep tabs on some issues: The Texas Department of Health tests oyster beds every year for fecal coliform, but that's all; the TNRCC inspects permitted facilities for compliance and spot-checks the bay for a handful of pollutants, as does the EPA. But many toxics are rarely, if ever, examined. "We don't really know what's in the bay during a given year," says UTMB toxicologist Marvin Legator. "The basic problem is chemical pollution, and that's totally ignored."
Even if the agencies wanted to be more thorough, they'd have a hard time managing it. Budgets have been tightened, especially in such politically unpopular branches as enforcement, and the state Legislature hasn't repealed its 1995 hiring freeze for agency workers. In the Houston regional branch of the TNRCC, the staff of permit inspectors has dwindled from a high of 24 several years ago to half that number today. Plants could once count on an annual visit; now some don't hear from an inspector for three years. And to improve efficiency, the TNRCC calls in advance to let plant managers know they're coming. "We all do have very limited resources," acknowledges Phillips. "What we try to do, to the best of our ability, is streamline our procedures and target the most critical facilities."
Those resources are being stretched ever thinner. The TNRCC took over the EPA's permit program last year, adding enormously to its inspection and testing load. That prompted a complaint by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, which argued that given the state's poor track record with its existing responsibilities, the TNRCC can't possibly administer the program effectively.
TNRCC lawyer Margaret Hoffman says the agency meets the EPA's requirements to shoulder the additional burden, and she's confident that the state will do a better job than the feds. The Sierra Club's Carman disagrees. "TNRCC doesn't have the resources, the staffing or the funding," he says.
Testing and other basic research are enormously expensive. A comprehensive lab report on a single sample can cost hundreds of dollars or more, depending on the complexity and sensitivity of the test.
With money scarce and no guarantee that tests will show anything noteworthy, program managers are deterred by the prospect of spending big chunks of budget on anything other than the bare minimum. "Being strapped for cash and resources, monitoring does not tend to be as palatable," says Woody Woodrow, a biologist with the state Parks and Wildlife Department regional office. "That's unfortunate, because there are some things that are being missed."
The bare minimum usually means responding to emergencies and tracking the most vicious toxics to make sure people don't drop dead from eating poisoned seafood or swimming in lethal pools. "Trying to get agencies to act in the absence of a crisis is very difficult," says ecologist Robert McFarlane, who helped shape a federally funded master plan for the bay in the early 1990s. "Until you get somebody coming down sick and hospitalized, there's no action."
The Galveston Bay Estuary Program noted the paucity of research in its 1992 study of toxics in Galveston Bay fish, blue crabs and oysters. "Little or no testing of edible tissues for toxic contamination by heavy metals, hydrocarbons, pesticides and PCBs has been conducted to assure public health and safety," the report states.
McFarlane draws the logical conclusion: "You don't look, you don't find."
Without regular, systematic testing, the few comprehensive studies that have been done on seafood tissue and water quality serve more as snapshots of a moment than a means to identify trends. But the results aren't especially inspiring: In addition to the Texas A&M report that warned of a threat to the oyster industry from reduced food supplies, other studies have noted apparent damage to the ecosystem. The Estuary Program, which pooled existing research and conducted some of its own, wrote in its 1994 master plan that Galveston Bay "now faces significant problems related to habitat loss, water quality and related species declines."
And the study of toxics in seafood found high concentrations of various substances, especially carcinogenic petroleum byproducts. Arguing the importance of further research, the report concluded that of all the species tested, oysters were the most contaminated. And the report says people ought to think twice about gorging regularly on Galveston Bay seafood: "Risk associated with consumption of average amounts of seafood in some parts of the bay is above the benchmark risk level which EPA has previously used to flag possible problems."
Seven years have passed without an official follow-up to the report's recommendations. The Texas Department of Health recently completed a seafood safety study, which is being reviewed before publication. Because of budget limitations, the samples were tested for only certain compounds. Oysters weren't studied at all.
Oysterman Nelson decided to do what the government wasn't doing. He recently hired a certified sample-puller and grabbed some oysters from a commercial bed near the Bayport Channel. He had a lab analyze the tissues. Because of the vagaries of the process, no definitive conclusions can be drawn from the results. Samples can be contaminated at various points during collection and testing, and less costly testing methods also tend to be less precise.
Assuming the lab report on Nelson's sample is relatively accurate, however, a clarion call for further study ought to sound. The oysters show elevated levels of four compounds, including cyanide. The concentration of mercury is most alarming: It's 15 times higher than the highest red-flag level determined by federal or state agencies in the last decade.
Bacliff resident Gary Jones has been fighting with his neighbor for almost ten years. They tried to work out their differences amicably but never came to terms. He enlisted the aid of Galveston County officials, but they said it's someone else's problem. He went up the political ladder, writing dozens of letters and making phone calls to anyone who might be interested. But nothing has worked, so Jones is going to court.
Jones's beef is a little bigger than the average homeowners association might tackle. His neighbor is HarvestFresh Seafoods, a redfish farm that has expanded significantly since it started operations in 1988. Today HarvestFresh raises more than 600,000 pounds of fish per year in 25 ponds, with more in the works.
The farm draws water directly from Galveston Bay, then pumps back several million gallons of effluent per day via a county drainage ditch and a Houston Lighting & Power plant canal. The ditch runs past Jones's house. He says the effluent smells bad and draws masses of flies, creating a health hazard for his family and devaluing his property.
More important, according to his formal complaint, the effluent has damaged the bay. The bottom used to be sandy and clean but is now covered with a layer of black muck, Jones says. A study he commissioned in 1994 indicated high levels of ammonia, carbon dioxide, copper and solids, as well as limited levels of oxygen.
HarvestFresh owner Harvey Rosen wouldn't comment for the record, but he and others associated with the operation consistently maintain that the water going out is just as clean as the water coming in. The TNRCC has inspected the facility several times since 1991 and found no discharge violations that would harm the bay. Because the laws governing fish farms were relatively loose, HarvestFresh was never forced to get a wastewater permit.
Now the laws have changed, and Rosen applied for official approval last year. At a public hearing on the proposal, which includes a plan to expand the facility, Jones mustered all the allies he could gather. Ronnie Schultz, director of Galveston County's Pollution Control Division, spoke against approval of the permit as is. Among the division's concerns were sedimentation of the bay bottom and the discharge of visible clumps of "biomass" into the ditch.
But if precedent is any indication, Rosen's permit will sail through the approval process. The TNRCC has been rushing to clear its backlog of wastewater discharge applications by the end of the year, which will result in tons of new pollutants being pumped into the bay. A handful of the applications, including HarvestFresh's, are still subject to hearings because of citizen challenges. But none of the 1,400 applications statewide has yet been denied after the TNRCC's issuance of a draft permit. HarvestFresh got its draft permit in August.
State regulations seem designed to aid industrial development, but the same can't be said for the commercial fishing industry. Historically fishermen have been blamed for declines in the catch, and not always without reason -- an influx of Vietnamese shrimpers in the 1970s and '80s, for example, more than quadrupled the number of trawlers on the water and overtaxed the resource. Attrition, coupled with strong new rules, has restored an equilibrium.
Shrimper Richard Moore, who participated in negotiations to fix the problem, believes regulators need to look further than his business to fix the myriad problems. The closure of half the bay to oystering and a federal fish warning because of dioxin in the Ship Channel area have nothing to do with nets or oyster dredges, he points out. "They call [the affected zone] an industrial site," Moore says. "What's it caused from? Pollution. What are they doing about it? Regulating me."
Joe Nelson reflects on his life in the business, which began when he and his brother would collect oysters off Smith Point after school, then sell them to teachers the next day. Now Smith Point has no oyster reefs, and he has watched for 50 years as their habitat has gradually shrunk. Never one to keep his mouth shut, Nelson has been banging on as many doors as he can to raise awareness of what he says all commercial fishermen already know: The bay is in trouble. But he can't seem to get through. "I think the watchdog is deaf and blind," he says.
Nelson understands that studies are necessary, that without basic research it would be unfair to blame industry or anyone else for the fishery's decline. Even though he doesn't have a Ph.D., common sense tells him to err on the side of caution. "If they don't have the scientific evidence to show there's a problem, they don't have the scientific evidence to show there's not a problem," Nelson says.
"If you don't know one way or the other, be on the safe side, and let's protect it."
E-mail Bob Burtman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.