A History of Polluted Waters in Texas

The Galveston Bay, as Houstonians know it today, had its beginnings right after the last Ice Age less than 18,000 years ago. As the Earth warmed, ice sheets receded, and the sea levels rose over thousands of years to eventually form the coast and the sandbars that gave rise to the Bay.

Playing an important role in Texas’ independence from Mexico, the deciding battle was fought where the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou conflate. Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845, and the city of Galveston was recognized in the 1850 U.S. Census as the largest city in Texas with 4,177 people. Maritime industry was rising to prominence, and the newly developed ports created a prosperous time for the area. Houston quickly became a close economic rival, and the two cities invested heavily over the years into projects dedicated to transforming simple waterways into flourishing economic expressways.

The Great Hurricane of 1900 was a Category 4, just like Harvey. It swept across the Gulf and crashed right into the center of Galveston, killing somewhere between 6,000–12,000 people. It is still the deadliest natural disaster to ever hit the United States. Citizens and businesses decided to move further inland, and Galveston’s golden era was over, lost to a mass exodus of Texans looking to rebuild in nearby Houston. Investors flocked to the area as well, and Houston became the next major hub of economic activity on the Gulf Coast.

January 10, 1901, is the most famous day in Texas petroleum history. It is the day oil was struck at Spindletop, near Beaumont, in what is known as hitting the “great gusher”. The discovery would change Texas and the Gulf Coast forever. Soon after oil was discovered, the first oil refinery was developed on Goose Creek, paving the way for petroleum industries to erupt with business. Chemical manufacturers also flocked to the area to support the petroleum industry refine and create oils, plastics, and fertilizers. The area was considered an ideal location because of its deepwater ports connecting directly to the sea, wide-open and available land, abundant sources of freshwater, and a severe lack of regulation.

By 1910, the public began to grow concerned over signs of pollution and disgusting waters. Oil was noticeable on the water’s surface, and fish populations began to disappear. Local residents quickly identified the petroleum industries as likely culprits but were not well organized to combat the corporate takeover. Several dredging projects from 1908 up into the 1960s eventually expanded the Houston ship channel from a depth of 18-feet to a 52-mile long depth of 45-feet today. The dredging projects were met with great opposition from fishermen, shrimpers, landowners, and other residents that were worried about the immense impact on the environment. Despite the public’s concerns, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put together the newly required environmental impact statement, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and corporate revenues were prioritized again at the expense of nature’s health.

McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation began dumping toxic waste in 1965, just off the San Jacinto River which feeds directly into the Galveston Bay. They were hired by a paper manufacturing company called Champion Paper to dispose of an industrial byproduct that was heavily contaminated with dioxins, a powerful carcinogen that causes liver failure and birth defects. With little regard for the environment or the living things downstream, the company produced two waste zones, one north of the I-10 bridge that is 14-acres large, and another on the opposite side of the bridge that is 20-acres large. The company used clay to isolate the sludge from the river, but changing flows have now put the 20-acre site completely underwater.

The extremely hazardous waste pits were not discovered until 2005. By then, the impact on the environment and unsuspecting residents was already complete. Dioxins have entered the food chain, and the state health department has issued a seafood consumption advisory for Galveston Bay and its tidal tributaries, like the San Jacinto River.

Settling in the river’s sediment, swimmers, fishers, and river-bottom creatures have all been exposed to dioxins being absorbed through their skin. Several attempts have been made to properly isolate the deadly chemicals soaking in the riverbed but to no avail. Designated a Superfund site in 2008, the current technology being utilized to limit the toxic effects on the environment has already been repaired at least six times. In 2015, a 20-foot hole was discovered in the temporary armor cap, and recent floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey have re-damaged the protective barrier. Locals are now calling for the EPA to completely remove more than 202,000 cubic yards of toxic sludge from each of the two sites. No official plans have been announced on how to handle this growing problem.

Environmental Texas, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising concerns about the environment, released a spooky list of pollutants infiltrating the Galveston Bay area. In honor of this upcoming Halloween, here is their list from 2011:

  •     4 trillion gallons of wastewater flow into the Bay every year. This wastewater comes from sewage runoff, industrial facilities, and Texas roadways.
  •      The past 60 years have seen over 45,000 acres of local wetlands disappear. Habitat destruction remains the greatest threat to fish and wildlife in the area.
  •      In 2007, Texas officially discharged 13 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the state’s waterways. Over 87,000 pounds were known carcinogens like arsenic, chromium, and lead.
  •      Officials issued 41 health advisories in 2009 warning swimmers to stay out of the water because it was too polluted.
  •      Each year there is an increase of pollution runoff from industry, road, agricultural, and septic tank sources.  Recent urban developments around the Bay have exacerbated the situation.
  •      Nearly half of the nation’s chemical manufacturing occurs in the Galveston watershed, resulting in numerous chemical and petroleum spills within the past decade. Irresponsible disposal practices from several municipalities have contributed greatly to the increase of pesticides, acids, paints, and industrial solvents flowing into the Bay’s waters.
  •      The area loses 2,500 acres of freshwater wetlands every year, with a total of over 25,000 acres lost in recent years to continual development.
  •      32 waterways feeding directly into the Houston-Galveston area are afflicted with dangerous levels of bacteria. The estimated 80,000 failing septic tanks in the area are largely responsible.

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