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Galveston Bay Closed to Fishing; Oil-Eating Bacteria Approved

August 2, 1990

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) _ Fishing was banned in seafood-rich Galveston Bay because of a 500,000- gallon oil spill, and crews trying to raise a submerged barge closed the Houston Ship Channel again today.

Cleanup crews, meanwhile, got the go-ahead from the federal government to use oil-eating bacteria on the 17-mile slick, but Gov. Bill Clements said after flying over the area today that he does not think the microbes will be effective.

″It’s as much a precautionary measure as anything else,″ Neil Travis, chief of the Texas Health Department’s consumer health protection bureau, said Wednesday in announcing the open-ended ban on commercial and private fishing.

The move was a blow to the seafood industry, and some business owners threatened to sue to recoup their losses. The bay is one of the state’s richest fishing grounds, generating revenue estimated at more than $338 million a year.

″Everybody’s wondering how in the hell they’re going to pay their mortgages on their boats and their businesses,″ said Walter Jakubas, owner of Captain Wally’s Marina in San Leon.

The spill occurred Saturday when a Greek tanker collided with two oil barges in the Houston Ship Channel. The tanker did not lose any of its cargo of jet fuel. But one Apex Towing Co. barge sank and the other was damaged.

The Coast Guard said today it is taking charge of cleanup operations.

″We took over the cleanup. We call the shots now and we pay the bills,″ said Chief Warrant Officer Rick Meidt. But, he said, the Coast Guard will bill the towing company for the cleanup costs.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Glenn Rosenholm said divers have found a crack between two cargo tanks on the barge and numerous holes, including one 7-foot gash in the stern.

Some 10,000 gallons of oil was found still aboard the barge in one of the tanks.

Rosenholm said divers put a sling under the barge in front of the crack to try to raise it enough to move it out of the ship channel.

Gov. Bill Clements met with Coast Guard Rear Adm. Jim Loy early today before flying over the accident site. Clements, who has declared a state emergency for the area, planned to visit Eagle Point, a peninsula that was doused with oil and is being used as a command post for cleanup crews.

Rosenholm said the Coast Guard estimates about 50,000 gallons of oil remained on the water throughout Galveston Bay today.

″That does not include oil contained in the booms, or picked up by skimmers,″ he said. ″That’s just what remains free-floating.″

More than 50,000 gallons of oil had been skimmed from the bay by Wednesday and other oil has been trapped in booms surrounding the spill area and sweeps used to deflect oil from sensitive marshland areas.

Meanwhile, officials from the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board resumed a hearing today into the cause of the accident.

On Wednesday, officials heard testimony from the captain and helmsman aboard the Shinoussa, who blamed a Houston Ship Channel pilot for directing them into the path of the barges. The pilot, however, claimed the helmsman turned the wrong way.

State officials had hoped to begin deploying some 800 pounds of oil-eating microbes in some areas of the bay later today.

But Clements, who declared the bay an emergency area Wednesday, said he didn’t think bioremediation would be effective on the 17-mile oil slick because it has broken up.

″It is so fragmented out there. There’s no concentration of the kind of slick that you would address it to,″ Clements said.

Blanton Moore, a representative of the Texas General Land Office, disagreed. He said the microbes could be used on the remaining sheen.

″It has no negative effects and can only help the bay,″ he said of the process.

The naturally occurring microbes reduce the oil to a fatty substance that sinks and is eaten by fish. When the oil is gone, the microbes die.

Earlier this summer, the oil-eaters underwent their first open-sea test on a small section of the 3.9-million-gallon Mega Borg oil spill. State officials said the microbes gobbled up the oil and caused no harm to the environment.

Travis of the state Health Department said the fishing ban was imposed because shrimpers were spotted fishing in oil-tainted areas and because oil was found on some shrimp caught in the bay.

The ban prohibits the taking of any aquatic organisms, including fish, crabs, oysters and shrimp.

″We’re at a point of extreme frustration,″ said Clifford Hillman, owner of Hillman Shrimp and Oyster Co. in San Leon. ″Are the effects of this two weeks, two years or twenty years?″

Larry McKinney, director of resource protection at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said oil settling on the bottom could kill small marine life - a crucial link in the food chain - and reduce the number of shrimp, oysters, crabs and other wildlife.

″If it’s on the surface, at least you have the chance of cleaning it up. If it gets to the bottom, there’s nothing you can do, you’re stuck with it,″ McKinney said. ″That’s when you get the long-term impact. If it gets in the sediment, it can be very toxic over a long period of time - up to five years.″

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