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Creative Solutions Save Money and Marsh Along Galveston Bay, Texas

Hazardous waste sites create a cascade of impacts that affect the health of communities, water quality, and the local environment. That’s why the long-term cleanup and restoration of these sites often requires a coordinated—and creative—regional approach.

This was certainly the case for the Malone Services Company hazardous waste site in Texas City, Texas. By combining efforts and funding in unexpected ways, federal, state and local partners came up with the most effective restoration solutions for the area, saving time and money along the way.

A Hazardous History

Located on the shores of Swan Lake and Galveston Bay, the 150-acre Malone facility produced decades of pollution affecting both groundwater within the site and runoff into nearby surface waters, creating long-term contamination problems for the region. Hundreds of businesses sent more than 480 million gallons of waste to the Malone facility for reclamation, storage, and disposal. During its operation from 1964 to 1997, waste products from those industries included acids, contaminated residues, solvents, and waste oils.

Designated a Superfund site in 2001, state and federal agencies collaborated early on during the cleanup, investigating the extent of the contamination, assessing which natural resources were affected, and planning restoration solutions to make up for these impacts. By sharing information they all needed, the agencies avoided additional costs from performing independent studies.

Aerial view of Malone Services Company waste site next to wetlands and Galveston Bay.

An aerial view of the Malone Services Company hazardous waste site shows the proximity of wetlands and Galveston Bay. (Department of the Interior)

Officially called “trustees,” the state and federal agencies involved included the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas General Land Office, NOAA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Working together, the trustees carried out the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process for the Malone waste site. In 2012, they reached a settlement with the responsible parties for approximately $3.1 million. In the settlement, the trustees determined that Malone’s pollution had significant negative impacts on natural resources, affecting upland-woodland, freshwater marsh, and saltwater marsh habitat around the Malone site.

To restore those natural resources, the trustees finalized the damage assessment and restoration plan [PDF] in 2015.  Key elements of the plan center on restoring nearby natural areas, including freshwater wetlands in Campbell Bayou, terrestrial woodlands in the Virginia Peninsula Preserve, and intertidal saltwater wetlands in Pierce Marsh.

Creative Restoration at Pierce Marsh

Situated on the north shore of West Galveston Bay, not far from the Malone site, Pierce Marsh covers more than 2,300 acres, supports vibrant seasonal and year-round bird and fish populations, and is home to commercial and recreational fisheries. It is also located near vital, colonial water bird nesting islands and serves as an important feeding area during the nesting season.

However, the marsh became completely flooded by the 1990s, compromising its habitat quality as the ground beneath it sank due to subsidence. “Pierce Marsh has experienced one of the greatest rates of wetland loss in Galveston Bay and the restoration of its fish and wildlife habitat is recognized as a regional restoration priority,” noted Jamie Schubert, NOAA Restoration Center Marine Habitat Specialist. The Galveston Bay Foundation, a co-owner of the land, has spent the last 15 years methodically restoring the marsh.

Money from the Malone settlement is funding the restoration of 70 acres of wetland at Pierce Marsh. Having each federal and state agency contribute to a portion of the success—through the funding, planning, engineering, design, permitting, implementation, or monitoring—this restoration project has saved time and money.

Birds swoop over a pipeline releasing mud into a marsh.

Sediments pouring from the end of a long pipeline are raising the ground elevation of Pierce Marsh, improving habitat for birds and fish and helping make up for the loss of similar habitat due to pollution at the Malone waste site. (Credit: John Morris/Mike Hooks, Inc.)

One cost-saving example came out of NOAA habitat conservation experts and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager, Seth Jones, both serving on an Interagency Coordination Team for the Texas Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The Corps maintains the waterway, dredging it deep and wide enough to meet current shipping demands. Out of those meetings emerged the idea to “beneficially” use the sediments from the waterway dredging to raise the ground level of Pierce Marsh.

“Our project delivery team included NOAA, the Galveston Bay Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Texas General Land Office, and the Texas Department of Transportation,” said Jones. “It was because of their instrumental input throughout the design phase that we are going to get a good start on the Galveston Bay Foundation’s long-term marsh restoration plan at Pierce Marsh complex.”

To pay for transportation of the dredged sediments to restore the marsh, the Texas trustees recommended that combined settlement funds from the Malone Services Company site, the Tex Tin hazardous waste site (also in the area), and another Texas state pollution case could help fund the needed restoration, yielding more restoration for their dollars.

“This beneficial use project has multiple benefits—it keeps the dredged material away from existing seagrass areas in West Bay and helps restore lost wetland habitat that has disappeared over the last fifty years in this area,” said Bob Stokes, President of Galveston Bay Foundation.

A Restoration Recipe for Success

Small levee of sediment and grass in a marsh.

A small levee constructed in Pierce Marsh, near Galveston Bay, Texas, contains dredged sediments that will restore marsh elevation and improve habitat quality. (NOAA)

Members of the trustee council have expressed enthusiasm for the project as well. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is excited to be part of the Pierce Marsh restoration project, which will restore estuary marsh habitat and benefit migratory birds and waterfowl,” said Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest Regional Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Multiple state, federal, and NGO partners have come together to restore contaminated areas at the Malone site.”

The Texas trustees anticipate building upon these efforts and using this approach to continue restoring coastal marshes, making ongoing monitoring of the project very important. They have partnered with Galveston Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited to monitor sediment settlement rates, which are used to assess project success and inform future projects.

“The Pierce Marsh reclamation project will make a significant contribution to restoring the coastal wetlands and natural resources that have been lost over time in this part of West Galveston Bay,” according to Richard Seiler, Program Manager of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Natural Resource Trustee Program. “The project represents a true team effort between the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the other state and federal natural resource trustees, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and our NGO partners, the Galveston Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited.”

The restoration of Pierce Marsh is a success story of interagency cooperation and partner coordination. Federal and state agencies and non-profit organizations with differing missions came together on a project that would benefit everyone involved. Working together to share financial and technical resources, ultimately enabled them to use sediment historically viewed as waste material to restore vital coastal habitat, enhancing the area for wildlife and fisheries for generations to come.


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Little “Bugs” Can Spread Big Pollution Through Contaminated Rivers

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

When we think of natural resources harmed by pesticides, toxic chemicals, and oil spills, most of us probably envision soaring birds or adorable river otters.  Some of us may consider creatures below the water’s surface, like the salmon and other fish that the more charismatic animals eat, and that we like to eat ourselves. But it’s rare that we spend much time imagining what contamination means for the smaller organisms that we don’t see, or can’t see without a microscope.

Mayfly aquatic insect on river bottom.

A mayfly, pictured above, is an important component in the diet of salmon and other fish. (NOAA)

The tiny creatures that live in the “benthos”—the mud, sand, and stones at the bottoms of rivers—are called benthic macroinvertebrates. Sometimes mistakenly called “bugs,” the benthic macroinvertebrate community actually includes a variety of animals like snails, clams, and worms, in addition to insects like mayflies, caddisflies, and midges. They play several important roles in an ecosystem. They help cycle and filter nutrients and they are a major food source for fish and other animals.

Though we don’t see them often, benthic macroinvertebrates play an extremely important role in river ecosystems. In polluted rivers, such as the lower 10 miles of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, these creatures serve as food web pathways for legacy contaminants like PCBs and DDT. Because benthic macroinvertebrates live and feed in close contact with contaminated muck, they are prone to accumulation of contaminants in their bodies.  They are, in turn, eaten by predators and it is in this way that contaminants move “up” through the food web to larger, more easily recognizable animals such as sturgeon, mink, and bald eagles.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River. (Portland Harbor Trustee Council)

The image above depicts some of the pathways that contaminants follow as they move up through the food web in Oregon’s Portland Harbor. Benthic macroinvertebrates are at the bottom of the food web. They are eaten by larger animals, like salmon, sturgeon, and bass. Those fish are then eaten by birds (like osprey and eagle), mammals (like mink), and people.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

As PCB and DDT contamination makes its way up the food chain through these organisms, it is stored in their fat and biomagnified, meaning that the level of contamination you find in a large organism like an osprey is many times more than what you would find in a single water-dwelling insect. This is because an osprey eats many fish in its lifetime, and each of those fish eats many benthic macroinvertebrates.

Therefore, a relatively small amount of contamination in a single insect accumulates to a large amount of contamination in a bird or mammal that may have never eaten an insect directly.  The graphic to the right was developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to illustrate how DDT concentrations biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain.

Benthic macroinvertebrates can be used by people to assess water quality. Certain types of benthic macroinvertebrates cannot tolerate pollution, whereas others are extremely tolerant of it.  For example, if you were to turn over a few stones in a Northwest streambed and find caddisfly nymphs (pictured below encased in tiny pebbles), you would have an indication of good water quality. Caddisflies are very sensitive to poor water quality conditions.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom are indicators of high water quality. (NOAA)

Surveys in Portland Harbor have shown that we have a pretty simple and uniform benthic macroinvertebrate population in the area. As you might expect, it is mostly made up of pollution-tolerant species. NOAA Restoration Center staff are leading restoration planning efforts at Portland Harbor and it is our hope that once cleanup and restoration projects are completed, we will see a more diverse assemblage of benthic macroinvertebrates in the Lower Willamette River.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.


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56 years after Gruesome Chemical Catastrophe, Science Prevented Second Texas City Disaster

In addition to authors Vicki Loe and CJ Beegle-Krause, Charlie Henry, Doug Helton, and Amy Merten contributed to this post.

On a cool April morning in 1947, the S.S. Grandcamp sat docked in Texas City, waiting as it was loaded with sacks of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. A few years earlier, this humble cargo ship had been part of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. After World War II, the U.S. government gave it to France as a gift to help rebuild a shattered Europe, where it was renamed the Grandcamp and converted into a slightly less grand cargo ship, which now found itself waiting fatefully in a Texas port.

The Grandcamp’s freight that day, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, is usually a relatively safe cargo, but it can quickly become unstable and explosive under certain conditions, which is also why it is used as an industrial and military explosive. Arriving by train in Texas City, this cargo may have become too warm to ship safely, but at the time, few chemical safety regulations existed, and the fertilizer was packed onto the Grandcamp along with its previous shipments of twine, peanuts, tobacco, and 16 cases of small arms ammunition.

Around 8:00 a.m. on April 16, after about 2,300 tons of fertilizer were loaded, workers noticed smoke and vapors coming from the ship. No one knew what caused the fire in the hold. The captain ordered the hatches battened and tarpaulins thrown over them, calling for steam to be piped into the ship—a firefighting technique he hoped would put out the fire but preserve the cargo. However, this would only make things worse.

Barge cast 100 feet inland by explosion.

This barge, originally located near the explosion, was lifted out of the water and landed 100 feet inland. The firetruck at left (behind the man) was thrown there by the second explosion. Photo taken April 18, 1947. (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library)

Shortly after 9:00 a.m., the ship exploded with tremendous force. The resulting explosion launched the cargo 2,000 to 3,000 feet into the sky, caused a 15-foot tidal wave, and was felt as far as 250 miles away.

A nearby ship, the S.S. High Flyer, also loaded with ammonium nitrate, ignited and about 16 hours later, also exploded.

The combined explosions resulted in the largest industrial disaster of its time in the U.S., taking the lives of an estimated 500–600 people. Thousands more were injured.

Damaged houses in Texas City in 1947.

Damaged Texas City houses one mile away from the explosion. Photo taken on April 18, 1947. (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library)

On a warm November evening in 2003, Barge NMS 1477 sat docked in Texas City, just across from the same dock where the Grandcamp had been waiting fatefully 56 years earlier. Loaded with 197,000 gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid (>97%), the barge capsized during the final stages of loading on November 3.

With the barge now floating upside down at the dock, acid began slowly leaking from the vents as seawater rushed in, dangerously diluting the acid.

Charlie Henry, then NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator for the region, quickly reported to the scene to support the United States Coast Guard Captain of the Port. While the situation appeared stable, the threat of a possible disaster was slowly growing. Inside the bowels of the barge, an aggressive chemical reaction was taking place.

Barge NMS 1477 tilted on its side at a Texas City dock.

Barge NMS 1477 later tilted on its side, where it was coincidentally located at the same Texas City dock as the S.S. High Flyer. (NOAA)

Highly concentrated acid is actually stable when shipping, but partially diluted concentrated sulfuric acid is highly corrosive. As the acid began mixing with small amounts of seawater, it began eating away at the barge’s steel structure, releasing heat and explosive hydrogen gas.

The gravity of this situation was not lost on Charlie and others involved in the response. This was quickly becoming a very dangerous situation for the responders and the local public.

With the gruesome 1947 catastrophe on their minds, the local NOAA responders along with a Louisiana State University chemist providing scientific support arrived at the site of the partially sunken barge on November 5, and the Seattle-based NOAA response team also went into high gear.

The response team included the U.S. Coast Guard, the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and NOAA, as well as representatives from the barge’s operator, Martin Product Sales LLC, all working together to minimize the impact of this incident.

The dock where the barge overturned in the Port of Texas City.

The dock where the barge overturned in the Port of Texas City in 2003. (NOAA)

The barge had now tilted on its side and rested on the bottom at the dock. This was the same spot that the unfortunate S.S. High Flyer was docked in 1947. Everyone’s immediate concern was the potential for an explosion from the hydrogen gas now built up in the barge. The gas had expanded the barge’s side-plates and vigorously bubbled from vents located underwater near where the side of the barge rested on the bottom.

Since 1947, this area in Texas City had been extensively developed to support the chemical and oil industries, meaning that an explosion on the barge could lead to even more damage and disaster than before.

Because the threat of explosion was so great, the responders made the unusual but necessary decision to do a controlled spill of the vessel’s remaining sulfuric acid into the adjacent harbor waters. To dilute such large volumes of acid to a concentration considered below an environmental hazard, it would have to be mixed with huge volumes of water. The buffering salts in seawater would also help mitigate the acid. The operation was complete by November 13, nine days after the accident.

The decision to intentionally spill the cargo wasn’t easy, but later environmental sampling showed that the acid was highly buffered and diluted when it entered the adjacent open bay. Furthermore, tidal flow and the movement of ships in the area appeared to help reduce the environmental impacts as well. Monitoring continued as the “footprint” of the plume of the discharged acid dissipated throughout the waters.

Aerial photo of Texas City Port taken April 20, 1947.

Aerial photo of Texas City Port taken April 20, 1947. (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library)

Fortunately, a smart use of science helped avoid another explosion in Texas City. The scarred propeller from the S.S. High Flyer sits at the entrance to the Port at Texas City as a reminder of a less fortunate emergency response which now happened 65 years ago.

Sources included [all links leave this blog]:
1947 Texas City Disaster | Moore Memorial Public Library
The Texas City Disaster, 1947 By Hugh W. Stephens | University of Texas Press
Sulfuric Acid Barge NMS 1477 Leaking | IncidentNews.noaa.gov
Agencies Respond to Capsized Barge | MarineLink.com

CJ Beegle-KrauseCJ Beegle-Krause is president of Research4D, a Seattle-based nonprofit with a mission to bring peer-reviewed research into decision support. She is a former trajectory modeler with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, who worked on this barge incident. More recently, she has been working again with OR&R on the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. “Science allows us to predict, and thus to respond most appropriately to smaller rapidly-scaling-up events like this barge as well as larger scale environmental disasters.”