GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — As the R/V Trident sped northwest through Galveston Bay, students and researchers from Texas A&M University’s Galveston campus donned blue latex gloves and bright orange life vests, silently mouthing the words to Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice” blaring over the boat’s loud speakers.
The Houston Chronicle reports just ahead was Morgan’s Point, at the entrance of the Port of Houston, the first stop of 10 planned to catalogue the chemical and biological effects on Galveston Bay of one of the worst storms in U.S. history. This station is the closest in proximity to the cities that took the brunt of Harvey’s rage: The San Jacinto River starts here, the Buffalo Bayou dumps into the bay here and the San Jacinto Waste Pits are closer than is comfortable.
If contaminants have reached the bay, said Karl Kaiser, an assistant professor at the school, their concentration likely would be the highest here.
The group started gathering their samples, throwing orange buckets over the railing of the 65-foot catamaran and filtering the water into labeled bottles for future testing.
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The water samples taken in recent weeks will be used to test for sewage, pharmaceuticals, metals and other chemicals, for example, that may have reached the bay because of Harvey.
And as more and more troubling reports are made about what has spilled as a result of Harvey, it seems unlikely the bay has been spared.
Indeed, that night, hours after the group had finished collecting water for the day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that Harvey caused a leak in the waste pits, one of the city’s most dangerous and vulnerable Superfund sites. A sample taken by the EPA found concentrations of dioxin — one of the most potent human carcinogens — at 2,000 times higher than the level at which the EPA requires cleanup.
The EPA said that the dioxin in the waste material isn’t easily dissolvable but it could migrate further into the surrounding sediments. Supplemental sampling will conclude to what extend it migrated, if at all.
Experts also are concerned about the amount of raw sewage that may have reached the bay after Harvey, as wastewater treatment plants struggled to remain operating both during and after the hurricane, which made landfall Aug. 25 in South Texas.
More than 30 million gallons were released in Harris and Fort Bend counties, some of which could have made its way into the bay. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, another 106 million gallons were released in Jefferson County, where it could flow directly into the Gulf of Mexico.
TCEQ has not yet responded to a public records request for the list of plants responsible for the spills. Twenty-one spills were reported in Jefferson County as of late last week, and one plant in the county still is considered inoperable more than a month after the storm. That plant, Port Arthur Products Station, has not leaked any wastewater, officials said.
In total, seven plants were considered inoperable or destroyed as of last week, TCEQ reported, four of which are in Harris County. The only plant still considered destroyed by TCEQ is in Harris County: McDonough Marine Service in Channelview.
Adding to these concerns is that more than 100 companies, including Valero Energy, Exxon Mobil and Arkema, had reported chemical spills as of last month, according to U.S. Coast Guard data.
The sun had barely risen over Galveston Bay last week when Kaiser and a dozen others — sipping coffee from steaming thermoses and rubbing sleep from their bleary eyes — finished preparing the Trident for an arduous day of water testing.
It was the fifth and final time over the past three weeks that Kaiser and his students, researchers and lab managers lugged coolers, water filtration systems and plastic and glass containers onto the boat. Hurricane Harvey’s August landfall pummeled parts of Texas with feet of rain and blinding wind, flooding homes, businesses and schools across the southern part of the state. Its path of destruction included sewage treatment facilities, Superfund sites and chemical plants.
Testing of the water samples has not yet begun, but Kaiser thinks there will be changes.
“We want to see how the urban environment will leave its imprint on the bay system,” Kaiser said. “And we can use this as an example so we can study and understand how the coastal ecological system will function after a major event like this.”
The first stop at the port’s entrance took just 20 minutes to complete. The boat’s captain began the start-and-stop journey back to Pelican Island as the researchers stored their samples in coolers.
One station down, nine to go. Testing the water at different points would allow Kaiser to determine how far into the bay contamination has reached.
“It will be difficult to say how much sewage made it into the bay, ” Kaiser said. “But we’ll be able to get a qualitative sense of whether it’s here.”
Five hours later, a whoop went up among the group when they closed the lid on the last cooler at station 10.
“Done!” shouted one researcher. “That went rapid fire!”
It was only 1:30 p.m. Some of their previous trips had stretched until 5 p.m.
But now the important part begins: testing each sample to determine the floods impact on their beloved bay.
Kaiser expects results from the water testing this month, but what happens afterward is unclear.
Harvey happened so quickly, Kaiser said, he and his colleagues jumped into action immediately, grabbing samples. But that means they started the effort without dedicated federal funding.
Researchers have applied for federal grants totaling about $500,000, but Kaiser said for now they are wrapping the expenses into normal department operations. He’s hopeful the federal funds will come in, he said, and he wants to use some of it to continue researching how the bay responds to this flooding event over time.
“We eventually want to see how the environment responds to the flooding,” Kaiser said. “Whether it goes back to its original state or it changes.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com