With little fanfare, Texas oil spill is killing dolphins and birds, mucking up beaches


Are Americans becoming numb to oil spills? You have to wonder sometimes. Over the last couple of years, as domestic fossil fuel production has surged, so have the number of accidents — along pipelines and railroads, on offshore drilling platforms and in barge collisions. And sure, these mishaps and misadventures have received some media coverage — but not all that much. Maybe the widespread devastation here in the Gulf after the BP oil spill in 2010 has something to do with that; after cameras recorded an astronomical 5 million barrels spewing into the Gulf, and the widespread harm that it caused, these other spills may not seem to measure up. But in reality, each incident has caused significant environmental harm.

Two weeks ago, a barge carrying a large quantity of an especially thick type of fuel oil collided with another vessel in Houston’s main shipping channel. The story never got much attention, but now it’s emerging that the spill had a much greater impact on the Gulf Coast along Texas than was originally feared. Here are some examples:

The March 22 collision between a ship and a barge carrying up to 4,000 barrels of “sticky, gooey, thick, tarry” bunker fuel oil in Galveston Bay, Texas has resulted in more than 200,000 pounds of oiled sand and debris accumulating along some 22 miles of shoreline on the Texas coast.

The spill, which shut down the busy Houston Ship Channel for three days, has had wide-ranging economic and ecological impacts. Areas surrounding the spill are environmentally sensitive and provide crucial stopover points for a number of migrating bird species. These include whooping cranes, one of North America’s rarest birds, which winter on the nearby Matagorda Island. Parts of the island have been contaminated by oil from the spill. Fewer than half of the whooping cranes have started this year’s migration north, and officials are taking extra precaution not to disturb them during cleanup efforts.

As of Thursday, the Coast Guard had recovered 329 oiled birds from Galveston Bay to North Padre Island, most of them dead. According to the Texas Tribune, birds affected by the spill include ducks, herrings, herons, brown and white pelicans, sanderlings, loons, willets, black-bellied plover and the piping plover.

That’s a tragedy, and so is this news — which is so reminiscent of what happened here in the central Gulf after BP:

GALVESTON – Scientists are trying to determine whether an oil spill two weeks ago in Galveston Bay contributed to a higher-than-normal number of dolphin deaths.

At least 29 dead dolphins have been found in the Galveston area since a ship and barge collided, spilling nearly 168,000 gallons of thick oil into Galveston Bay. The number brought the total for March to 47, above the average of 34 dolphin strandings for the month and triple last years’ total of 15, said Heidi Whitehead, state operations coordinator for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Testing will needed to determine what role, if any, oil played in the dolphin deaths. But it is certain that oil is affecting hundreds of birds, and the numbers appear to be increasing, said Richard Gibbons, Houston Audubon conservation director.

Although dolphins become stranded in the Gulf this time of year for a variety of reasons, the evidence is strong that much of the increased death toll of the result of the oil spill. Several of the dolphins were visibly oiled, according to marine biologists. And if what happened in Louisiana after the BP spill is any indication, the oil’s impact on dolphins could last for a long time. It was just recently that government scientists reported that a year after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, dolphins were turning up with missing teeth, lung disease and other major ailments.

We can’t become numb to these tragedies. In the short run, there are steps we can take better regulate the industry — to improve the safety of barges and tankers and minimize spills, for example, or require safer tanker cars for rail transport — and thus reduce the immediate danger. In the long run, of course, we must work harder to reduce our chronic dependency on fossil fuels — so that we’re not moving oil around in the first place. The dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico are counting on us.

Here’s more information from Think Progress about the environmental impacts of the Texas oil spill: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/04/06/3423424/toil-galveston-bay-spill/

To read more about the dead dolphins in the Galveston area, please check out: http://m.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/29-dead-dolphins-found-since-oil-spill-5376540.php

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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