Crews are now tracking oil spilled in Galveston Bay last weekend, as it travels with heavy currents out of the Bay and west along the coast of Texas. This is occurring as winds and currents shift. Previously, prevailing currents were helping the oil drift east toward the Gulf of Mexico. Now officials are concerned the affected area will be larger than expected.
Those same heavy currents are complicating recovery efforts, breaking up the oil slick into elusive patches, and baffling skimmers.
“You literally have to have a flat sea to vacuum or remove that oil from the water,” Scott Smith, Chief Scientist for Water Defense, told Click2Houston. “The wind creates the chop and then you can’t get the oil out quickly with these older technologies. Then you take the risk of it spreading like it’s doing now.”
Smith echoed official concerns that the affected area may wind up being “hundreds of miles of shoreline along the Texas coast.”
Crews are tracking the oil and trying to set up booms wherever the oil is set to reach beaches. But the heavy currents and weather are rendering the booms less effective than they would be under calmer conditions.
Sensitive ecology threatened
From the start, conservation groups have been concerned for the safety of birds, many of which are collected in the area during the winter migration period. Already, birds have been seen oiled, many dead. But even still living birds who have been oiled have only a 50-50 chance of survival. As oiled birds preen their feathers, they cannot help but ingest oil.
The extremely sensitive Bolivar Flats, a Globally Important Bird Area, is already being affected. Although miles from the spill site and still showing few signs of oil onshore, birds in the area have been seen covered in oil. The dispersed and dense oil is not visible at the surface, but diving birds are passing through it as they forage in open water.
Authorities now expect another highly sensitive wildlife area, Matagorda Island, will be the next place to be affected by the spill. The barrier island is also a migration stopover, and at this time of year it hosts about 20 species of birds listed as either threatened or endangered. Boom is being laid along the coast in anticipation of the oil’s arrival.
Economy and livelihoods also at stake
Galveston Bay is home to a thriving commercial and recreational fishing economy, most of which has been shut down following the oil spill. A group of commercial fishers and local related businesses have now filed a class action lawsuit against Kirby Inland Marine LP and Cleopatra Shipping Agency Ltd. Kirby Inland Marine LP is the operator of the barge and tugboat involved in the spill.
The plaintiffs, all businesses that rely on Galveston Bay’s natural resources, claim that “with the marine fuel oil still leaking, [they] are suffering and will continue to suffer serious losses.” This is high season for the area’s businesses.
Local business owners are concerned that people will not soon forget the spill, and that the ecological impact will be rivaled by the impact to people’s hearts and minds. There are also concerns that because of its viscosity and density, the oil spilled last weekend will be around a lot longer than other types of oil, having long term impacts on the fishery.
For instance, a major source of revenue for the lucrative industry is shrimp. After hatching in open water, larval shrimp return to marshes and other shore areas to mature. That is precisely where oil will tend to be deposited.
Greg Stunz, a biologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, told the Texas Tribune that his concern is what might happen when the shrimp larvae arrive. He said, “Once they start using the marshes, that is the defining moment of when everything’s got to be just right,” Stunz said. “The marshes are their homes and grocery stores. And if your home’s polluted, you’re not going to survive.”
Along with being highly vulnerable in and of themselves, the marshes host many other organisms with similar life cycles to shrimp, including blue crabs and menhaden, a small fish that is fundamental to both the fishery and the local ecology.
Years after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, the Gulf of Mexico’s fishery has still yet to recover. A study released just this week in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences linked oil contamination in the Gulf to major, often fatal deformities, in young fish. Larval fish exposed to smaller concentrations than the large spill area following BP’s blowout were heavily affected by oil. The causal link to the fishery’s decline and these deformities, though not explicitly confirmed by the study, seems clear.
The Tribune spoke to Doug Rader, chief oceans scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, who confirmed the parallel between the two spills: “You have sensitive early life history stages that are being exposed to toxins,” he told the paper. He went on to say that impacts in Galveston Bay may be even more persistent, given the type of oil spilled.
A tough week
The spill in Galveston was the biggest of three oil spills (that we know of) this week. Another occurred on Lake Michigan, at a British Petroleum facility recently overhauled to process tar sands oil. Yet another, this one much bigger, occurred when an underground pipeline ruptured in Ohio. As if to add insult to injury, the rupture blasted 20,000 gallons of oil onto the Oak Glen Nature Preserve.
Almost immediately, Fox News tried, in its forever arcane logic, to turn the Galveston spill into an argument for further expanding oil and oil shipping infrastructure. They tried to argue that shipping accidents are in some way an argument for building the Keystone XL pipeline. Of course, pipelines like Keystone XL would only INCREASE oil shipping traffic, as pipelines only run over (or under) land.
Top photo courtesy US Coast Guard; photo by Petty Officer 2nd Stephen Lehmann.