Searching for chemical runoff data


Release date: Week of January 14, 2022

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Galveston Bay, in the western Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: Adam Reeder, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Houston, Texas is a hub for the US petrochemical industry and just downstream is Galveston Bay, an important ecosystem and fishery for the region. Houston Public Media reporter Katie Watkins reports on research to test fish living in the bay for exposure to chemicals from runoff.


DOERING: Houston, Texas is one of the cancer hotspots that ProPublica has identified in its analysis of aggravating chemical exposures. Houston is a hub for the US petrochemical industry and just downstream is Galveston Bay, an important fishery for the region. And scientists are trying to figure out how industrial runoff might affect marine life there. Katie Watkins is a reporter at Houston Public Media and has the story.

WATKINS: I met Sepp Haukubo of the Environmental Defense Fund and our Captain LG Boyd at a dock in Texas City at dawn. We leave in the bay at sunrise and we can see the industrial complex of Houston in the background. The two men set up their fishing gear and Haukubo explains what they are looking for.

HAUKUBO: We caught a lot of trout, so we’re trying to get some more goldfish, black drum. Ten is probably a good total number.

WATKINS: We won’t eat those fish. Instead, they will be sent to a laboratory at Texas A&M University, where they will be tested for the presence of certain chemicals and metals associated with the petrochemical industry.

HAUKUBO: So at least we’ll know that it’s not coming from, you know, runoff from somebody’s yard, or from the city streets, you know, it’s really coming from a group of facilities.

WATKINS: By sampling fish, researchers hope to understand what toxic compounds enter the bay during floods and how they build up over time.

Fish, like this speckled trout at a market in Seabrook, Texas, can provide an indicator of water pollution levels. (Photo: Patrick Feller, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

HAUKUBO: You know, I eat a lot of seafood from Galveston Bay, I eat oysters, I eat the fish that I catch, but that’s exactly one of the reasons why we’re doing this study in order to get a better idea of ​​what some of the health risks are, but also what some of the ecosystem risks are, right?

WATKINS: The state issues warnings if the fish isn’t safe to eat, and state and federal organizations have tracked similar data. This research builds on that.

CISNEROS: So we would be able to tie current data to historical data and sort of come up with new trends to track how things are changing over time.

WATKINS: It’s Charlotte Cisneros of the Galveston Bay Foundation, who is also involved. She says that because these fish are higher up the food chain, they are good indicators of chemicals accumulating in the ecosystem.

CISNEROS: These are just good general indicators of health in the region.

Katie Watkins: Alina Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund says fish sampling is only part of the research. The chemicals that appear can be used to help identify the industrial facilities they may have come from.

CRAFT: We’re trying to better understand, okay, where would these compounds come from in terms of industrial facilities? And so really trying to understand which facilities may be most at risk based on where they are located based on what compounds they handle or use in their operations and so on.

WATKINS: As a final step, they’ll come up with nature-based solutions that could help mitigate pollution, things like oyster beds and green spaces that slow the flow of runoff. She says that with climate change making the hurricane stronger and wetter, these solutions are all the more urgent. Back on the fishing boat, we weren’t very lucky. Most fish are either too small or the wrong species. [WATER SPLASHING] So still too short?

HAUKUBO: Too short [LAUGH]

WATKINS: Boyd and Haukubo toss and turn, over and over until…

BOYD: There you go! Beauty now where science begins.

Katie Watkins: It’s a 20½ inch black drum named after the drumming noise it makes. [BLACK DRUM SOUND] Then Haukubo puts it in a Ziploc bag and in a cooler. It logs time, location, water temperature and other data points. By the end of the day, they had caught nine fish to transport to the lab for testing, where they will offer insight into the pollution in our bay. For news 88-7 in depth. I am Katie Watkins.

DOERING: It’s environmental journalist Katie Watkins. Her story comes to us courtesy of Houston Public Media.


Houston Public Media | “Galveston Bay researchers are looking for chemical runoff data – literally”

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