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Texas A&M Water Researchers Find Waxy Residue Near Deer Park Disaster

The team has been collecting water and air quality samples in Galveston Bay on a quarterly basis since June 2017.

Courtesy of Dr. Jessica Fitzsimmons/Texas A&M Geosciences
The Houston Shipping Channel near Alexander Island.


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Texas A&M researchers say they’ve spotted abnormal water conditions near last week's Deer Park chemical disaster.

The team has been collecting water and air quality samples in Galveston Bay quarterly since June 2017. They won't have lab results from their March 23 samples for another two weeks, but Dr. Jessica Fitzsimmons said the residue suggests chemical compounds, likely from the ITC runoff.

"When we put our hands in the water and our hands came up and dried, it wasn't a feeling that you normally get when sea water dries on your hands," she said. "Instead we had a waxy feeling on our hands that was an indicator that there is something different in the waters, even in greater Galveston Bay — in the northwest corner of greater Galveston Bay."

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, their water sampling hasn't found any cause for concern.

"I think my surprise came from the fact that we didn't expect this to have come quite as far south as it did, if we can assume what we saw came from Deer Park, which is our current assumption," Fitzsimmons said.

Intercontinental Terminals Company said sensitive marsh areas near their facility haven't been impacted.

ITC clean-up continues

ITC said in a news release that, as of Wednesday morning, responders had removed approximately 696,990 gallons of oily water from the waterways impacted by the incident, which includes the Houston Ship Channel and several regional bayous such as Buffalo and Tucker.

In addition, approximately 1.5 million gallons of product mixed with water and firefighting foam had been removed.

Response personnel are still foaming the tank farm as needed to maintain at least a 2-foot level of foam, by pumping a mix of firefighting foam, water and remaining product from the ditch using vacuum trucks and hoses.

ITC executive Brent Weber said at a news conference Thursday the focus was to finish emptying tanks that contain gasoline blend stocks and base oil. Naphtha, which is highly flammable, is the base component in the gas blend stock. He also noted that all the Pygas had been transferred out of the tank farm.

“Progress continues to be steady,” said Weber, while adding his company is also repairing ditches and assisting the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard with cleaning the waterways.

Both Harris County and ITC said in news releases that there are currently no known or suspected impacts to drinking water.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has updated its fish consumption advisory for the upper Houston Ship Channel and recommends not eating any fish or crab from the ship channel or San Jacinto River north of the State Highway 146 Fred Hartman Bridge.

The Houston Ship Channel is currently open to traffic between Tucker Bayou and HSC Light 116 through coordinated vessel movement by the Coast Guard.

The San Jacinto River also remains open for vessel traffic during daylight hours only, and there are specific sites set up to observe transiting vessels that may require decontamination. Coast Guard Captain Kevin Oditt said at the news conference he didn't have a timeframe on full reopening of the Channel.

ITC also posted a video statement from CEO Bernt Netland on YouTube in which he addresses the incident and apologizes.

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