COVER: A barge loaded with marine fuel oil sits partially submerged in the Houston Ship Channel on March 22 as its cargo seeps into Texas coastal waters. U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO
by JIM MALEWITZ
Garry Mauro had just stepped out of the shower on Easter Sunday in 1989 when he saw a breaking newscast with images of blackened beaches and wildlife interrupting his young son’s cartoons.
The former Texas land commissioner, in an interview, recalled his reaction to the Exxon Valdez, which spewed more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound after the California-bound ship ran aground.
“What if that happened in Texas?” he said he thought.
With resources available at the time, Mauro figured it would take decades for the state’s coastline to fully recover from such a disaster. His initial horror eventually spurred a new law that has made the Texas General Land Office a key player not only in cleaning up oil spills but also in helping to reduce the number of such incidents and keep Texas beaches cleaner. More than two decades later, a massive spill in Galveston Bay has put the General Land Office’s oil spill duties back into focus.
Not long after learning about the Exxon Valdez, Mauro, a Democrat, called on then-Gov. Bill Clements to appoint a committee to study the state’s preparedness for oil spills. Within two years, propelled in part by swirling concerns following Texas’ own catastrophic incident — the 1990 explosion of the tanker Mega Borg, which unloaded 5.1 million gallons of crude 57 miles outside of Galveston Bay — Texas lawmakers enacted legislation declaring the preservation of the Texas Coast “a matter of the highest urgency and priority.”
That law spurred the creation of the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program inside the Texas General Land Office, setting up a robust spill reporting system and requirements that operators of deepwater ships and refineries on shore have plans to limit and respond to spills. The agency became the lead responder to oil releases, coordinating with wildlife and environmental officials.
A tanker collision last Saturday sent up to 168,000 gallons of particularly heavy, sticky fuel oil into Galveston Bay, an ecologically rich estuary that is home to a multibillion-dollar fishing and recreational industry. It has stirred major concerns about long-term environmental impacts. But even as tar balls – small bits of congealed oil – wash ashore this week, Texas’ beaches are far cleaner than they were before Texas bolstered its spill efforts.
Oil spills are common in Texas waterways, particularly along the Gulf Coast, where more than 50 billion gallons of oil are transported each year. But the number of spills has declined in recent years.
In 2013, the GLO responded to 423 oil spills in Texas waterways, the smallest annual total since 1998, the first year in the agency’s database, which tracks even the tiniest of spills — including releases of just a few drops of oil. From 1999 until 2001, the agency responded to more than 900 spills each year, according to the agency.
As the total number of spills has fallen, the number of large spills has also dwindled. The Galveston Bay spill ranks as the second-biggest in Texas waters since 1998, behind a 2010 incident in the Port Arthur Ship Channel that sent about 400,000 gallons of oil into the water. But it is the first spill of more than 10,000 gallons in more than three years (there have been 22 such spills since 1998), according to GLO data.
The improvement, experts say, is due to a number of factors, including more reliable spill reporting, more responsible industry players and the work of the land office’s spill program.
The program, funded by a 1.3-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moving into Texas ports, stands out nationally for its size and scope. The agency employs 56 people and has five offices along the coast, along with equipment positioned throughout the Gulf waters to quickly contain mishaps. The officials patrol the waters and certify and inspect more than 600 coastal facilities, looking for potential problems and ensuring that companies have up-to-date spill response plans.
State law requires the companies to report spills within an hour, after which state officials often quickly respond.
“I am frankly amazed at how prepared they are. It’s pretty impressive,” said Larry McKinney, executive director of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.
McKinney and other longtime observers of Texas beaches say they are no doubt cleaner now than in the past, when tar balls would regularly wash ashore in Houston and beachgoers would bring soap on their outings.
“I can’t tell you how dirty your feet would get when you would go to the beaches in the 1970s,” said Greg Pollock, deputy commissioner of the GLO’s oil spill team. His tenure at the agency started before the program existed. “People just don’t tolerate releases anymore as much as they might have in the past.”
Pollock said his team had equipment in the water within three hours of the report of the latest spill.
McKinney, who spent three decades beginning in 1987 with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, an agency that pitches in on cleaning up spills, said he was impressed by the miles of oil-catching booms – barriers meant to contain spills – floating in the Galveston Bay on Monday. It was far more equipment than he saw after spills in his early years working for the state.
“We were not prepared for that in those days. It was pretty much an ad hoc response,” he said.
Pollock said he does not want to downplay the severity of the latest spill.
“If a fully laden tanker sinks in Galveston Bay, I’m not going to tell you that it’s not a terrible situation,” he said. But he is proud of the state’s progress, and his team’s role in shaping it.
Still, the program faces challenges — aside from the fact that a catastrophe can strike at any moment.
One worry is long-term funding. Though the program’s guaranteed per-barrel tax dollars largely protect it from the whims of Texas’ budget-cutting lawmakers, the surge in domestic oil production could reduce imports of crude, shrinking the program’s revenue stream. In 2013, the program’s operating budget stood at about $6.3 million.
Some environmentalists worry that the GLO’s focus could shift from natural resources management over time.
Andy Sansom, director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, acknowledged the marked reduction in oil spills in recent years, but he said, “There are many of us who look at the land office as a steward of the state resources, and it doesn’t seem to be a priority anymore,” he said, noting the topic has gotten relatively little attention in the race to replace Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who was in Texas City on Tuesday monitoring cleanup efforts.
On Monday, John Cook, a former mayor of El Paso and the Democratic nominee for land commissioner, said he was paying close attention to the GLO’s efforts on the latest cleanup and called in for a briefing that day.
“The response to the spill has been effective,” he said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “More than 70,000 feet of containment barriers are in place, and 24 skimming vessels are working on the cleanup.”
The campaign for George P. Bush, the Republican hopeful, released a brief statement on Monday saying “protecting our coastal area is one of the most important functions of the GLO.”
“He supports Land Commissioner Patterson’s efforts to work closely with the Coast Guard, monitor the water currents and the movement of the oil, and to mitigate any damage to the coast and or local habitats,” the statement said.
JIM MALEWITZ reports the Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.