Chemicals spills during natural and man-made disasters: protecting estuaries through science and promoting social well-being    

Project description

The Clean Water Act (CWA) enacted in 1972 is the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution. Nonetheless, more than 45 years later, municipal and toxic industrial wastes still enter our rivers, estuaries and coastal waters. While the CWA and federal pollution regulations intended to end the idea that “dilution is the solution to pollution”, estuaries are arguably still the most adversely impacted "pollution mixing zones" because of their interface between land and sea. Estuarine waterways frequently host petroleum transportation vessels that may release oil during routine processes (e.g. tank cleaning, transfer of contents, engine maintenance) and because of their highly developed surroundings, are vulnerable to land sourced run-off of various pollutants.


The environmental, human health, and economic consequences of anthropogenic releases of petrochemicals into marine environments was recently reviewed. Typically, low-molecular weight compounds such as alkanes, benzene, naphthalene or anthracene are preferentially degraded but there is also evidence of high-molecular weight, more toxic, PAH compounds such as pyrene and fluoranthene being utilized by microbes, oysters and fish. Oil spills are recognized to have very complex effects, and there is a need for continued research to improve future mitigation strategies.

While much is known about "traditional" oil spills around the world, arguably less is known about their effects on the water and biota in Texas waterways. As a result of the Texas City "Y" oil spill in Galveston Bay, we investigated role of nutrients in bioremediation pathways. The proximity of this spill to land reduced the time for abiotic weathering processes (e.g. photodegradation, dissolution, evaporation. The oil that rapidly accumulated on nearby beaches had high concentrations of total PAHs that were primarily dominated by compounds including alkylated phenanthrenes, known to be toxic to marine organisms, and naphthalenes that are considered low molecular weight and highly volatile. While weather conditions and currents quickly moved the bulk of the spilled oil out of the bay and into the Gulf of Mexico, slicks and tar balls were visual surrounding the spill site for several days, during which time oil compounds were presumably interacting with resident microbial communities in the water. As a result of this study, we also learned that little is known about the consequences of oil spills to the biota in Texas estuaries.

The GOMRI program over the last decade has provided much detail on processes, mechanisms, pathways, and importance of science literacy for the Gulf of Mexico. One of the important takeaways from the GOMRI funded research was the role of MOSSFA pathway that sedimented ~10-20% of the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill. Through laboratory and mesoscale experiments, we were able to gain insights into the mechanism of MOSFFA pathway. Our research and technology base from GOMRI funded program supports the proposed work which will focus on two specific pathways: natural and man-man environmental disturbances. Specifically, Hurricane Harvey (2017) and the recent petrochemical fire and spill at Deer Park (2019), have negatively influenced the largest and most populated watershed on the Texas coast. This proposal assembles an interdisciplinary team with a history of working in the Galveston Bay ecosystem, comprising: toxicologist (Hala), ecologist (Quigg), environmental chemist (Kaiser) and social scientist (Ross) to address the following:    

  • Objective 1: Quantify levels of oil-derived hydrocarbons and flame retardant pollutants in water and biota.

  • Objective 2: Examine role of riverine flows by developing a conceptual model of estuarine recovery rates.

  • Objective 3: Monitor social well-being immediately following and 1-year subsequent to environmental disturbances.

  • Objective 4: Work with the Texas General Land Office's mission on Oil Spill Prevention and Response team to develop most effective communication tools to share information gained from this program.

The proposed work herein builds on studies and expertise of the PI's addressing microbial degradation, fate and transport of oil spills in Galveston Bay (Quigg), toxicology and water chemistry after disasters/ environmental disturbances (Kamalanathan, Hala and Kaiser) and community resilience (Ross). The work proposed here is novel and will prove invaluable to the TGLO’s mission on Oil Spill Prevention and Response team working in Texas estuaries. The Project will benefit the GLO and the oil spill response community in two ways. First, it will help the GLO Oil Spill Prevention and Response team better predict the impact of an oil spill under consideration on water and biota as well as the corresponding environmental conditions. Second, it will provide them with tools and materials necessary to address public concerns.


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