Is The ITC Deer Park Incident Affecting Galveston Bay? Texas A&M Scientists Analyze Initial Samples
Texas A&M University Department of Oceanography researchers observed abnormal water quality conditions in multiple locations in the Houston Ship Channel and northern Galveston Bay during a regularly-scheduled research cruise March 23. However, they will not know whether toxic compounds were in the water until sample analyses are completed, in about two weeks.
This research team has been collecting water and air quality samples quarterly in Galveston Bay since June 2017. The pre-scheduled March 23, 2019 sampling cruise happened to occur after an incident on March 17 at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) Deer Park facility, in which a storage tank caught fire, resulting in a large smoke plume. The situation developed into further fires, with organic compounds breaching containment barriers and flowing as runoff into waters near ITC that flow into the Houston Shipping Channel.
“At our Station 13 (south of Atkinson Island in Galveston Bay), when our sampling crew retrieved water samples, the water left a waxy residue on their hands, which indicates the presence of some kind of organic compounds in the water, likely derived from the ITC runoff,” said Department of Oceanography Assistant Professor Dr. Jessica Fitzsimmons, who led the cruise as chief scientist. “Since this is our eighth time sampling here in two years, we know that the water in Galveston Bay doesn’t usually leave a waxy residue.”
Organic compounds are chemicals containing carbon; some organics are toxic while many, like soap, are non-toxic. Soap, gasoline, and petrochemical products are examples of organic compounds. The ITC storage facility houses organic compounds in large storage tanks, particularly petrochemical products, she said.
“We don’t know exactly what compounds were in the water, but we know from the water’s texture that organics were present and from their location that these organics had traveled down the Houston Shipping Channel, likely from ITC, all the way to Galveston Bay, beyond the area closed by the U.S. Coast Guard,” Fitzsimmons said. “We did not observe any water colored black from oil, but we did observe clear compounds appearing as shiny slicks on the surface waters of the bay. Those are the organic compounds.”
According to an ITC press release, “since March 19 more than 1,100 federal, state and local first responders, agencies, and environmental cleanup contractors have been on the scene and actively assessing, booming and continuing to remove product from affected areas.”
“Initial media reports focused on the air quality concerns from the ITC fires, but when we saw video of the ITC runoff into Buffalo Bayou while preparing for this sampling trip, we knew that water quality concerns needed to be considered as well,” Fitzsimmons said.
The Texas A&M researchers, led by Fitzsimmons and including Oceanography Department Head Dr. Shari Yvon-Lewis and Professor Dr. Gerardo Gold Bouchot, collected air and water quality samples aboard the R/V Trident, a Texas A&M Galveston-owned ship. This ongoing research project is funded by a T3-Triad Grant from Texas A&M, as well as a grant from the Texas A&M University System Chancellor’s Research Initiative, which funded the ship time.
Thirteen graduate students and seven undergraduate students were on board collecting samples, some of whom were at sea for the first time.
“This is invaluable research experience for these students, and everyone did an incredible job on Saturday, constantly staying aware of our surroundings, following safety protocols on the frontlines of potential environmental hazards, and keeping a watchful eye out for anything unusual in the bay,” Fitzsimmons said.
The research team processing the air and water quality includes students and staff from the laboratories of Drs. Fitzsimmons, Yvon-Lewis, Gold-Bouchot, Kathryn Shamberger, Daniel Thornton, Yina Liu, and Terry Wade from Texas A&M Oceanography; Dr. Kung-Hui (Bella) Chu from the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering; and Drs. Antonietta Quigg, Jamie Steichen, and David Hala from Texas A&M Galveston Marine Biology.
The research team intends to measure in the coming weeks: n-alkanes, PAHs, PCBs, PFAS, methane, ethane, halogenated carbon compounds, heavy metals including lead isotopes, antibiotic resistant genes, cytotoxicity, phytoplankton response, dissolved organic matter, pH and carbonate saturation; and a suite of water quality parameters including nutrients, oxygen, salinity, temperature, and water clarity.