The Galveston Oil Spill, One Month On

photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Stephen Lehmann/U.S. Coast Guard
Photograph by Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Vega/U.S. Coast Guard
Photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class George Degener/U.S. Coast Guard
Photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class George Degener/U.S. Coast Guard
Photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Stephen Lehmann/U.S. Coast Guard

The Galveston Oil Spill, One Month On

Though the immediate danger has passed, the oil spill’s long term effects are still unknown.

By Martha Harbison
Published: 04/16/2014

On March 22, a barge owned by Kirby Inland Marine carrying 920,000 gallons of thick, tarry RMG 380 fuel oil collided with a ship in the Galveston ship channel. The damaged barge leaked 170,000 gallons of that fuel oil into Galveston Bay, just a few miles from bird sanctuaries such as North Deer Island and Houston Audubon's Bolivar Flats. The spill occurred at the height of the spring migration, when millions of resident and migratory birds use the Texas coast to feed and breed.

Now, more than three weeks after the initial spill, it's possible to assess what the immediate impact of that spill will be. First, the good news: North Deer Island and Bolivar Flats did not experience significant oiling. In fact, most of Audubon's 178 island sanctuaries along the Texas coast, which range in size from a quarter-acre to more than 100 acres, remained unscathed. A number of birds in the Galveston Bay area were oiled, but they encountered the slick in the open water, not in the sanctuaries themselves. Rather, much of the spilled oil traveled out into the Gulf of Mexico and migrated southwest down the Texas Coast. Oil made landfall at Matagorda Island, a barrier island some 120 miles away from Galveston. Its remoteness made cleanup and monitoring difficult: Matagorda is only accessible by boat, and because it has no roads, response teams had to use ATVs brought to the island by barge.

During the cleanup outside of Galveston Bay, crews bagged 219,025 pounds of oiled material, most of which came from Matagorda Island and Mustang Island, and recovered 77 deceased birds, including herons, terns, and shorebirds. In the end, two-thirds of the Texas Coast was affected by the disaster, from just northeast of Galveston down to North Padre Island, some 300 miles south.

If there are any positives to take out of this whole mess, it's that the oil did not make it into marshes, nor did it sully the habitat for the critically endangered whooping crane, which is located just behind the Matagorda barrier island in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

According to Audubon Texas's Director of Bird Conservation Iliana Pena, Texas shorebirds aren't yet in the clear. At sites where oil reached the shore on Mustang Island, just outside Corpus Christi, half of the observed birds exhibited some signs of oiling, and the long-term impacts on the birds' feeding and breeding success has yet to bet determined. Audubon staff and coastal wardens will monitor the birds to see if any long-term effects of the oil spill show up in the bird population. But three weeks out, conservationists are breathing just a little easier.

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Martha Harbison

Martha Harbison is "the voice of outraged integrity." She is also the Network Content Editor for the National Audubon Society.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine