The oil spill that wasn’t

The oil spill that wasn’t

Sunday, Feb. 6, was a sunny day in Southeast Texas with welcome warming temperatures after a bitterly cold week. While driving down Highway 87 near Sabine Pass, a passerby spotted a plume of liquid spouting 7 or 8 feet into the air from Keith Lake.

Two men fishing from the roadside said they had never seen anything like it in the lake. As they watched, the liquid turned from a translucent blue to black as the spout continued to flow. The passerby snapped a few pictures that clearly showed the spout. Less distinct but also visible were places on shore where the black substance had accumulated.

Having worked in and around the petrochemical industry, the witness was aware that most of the coastal area in Southeast Texas is crisscrossed by multiple pipelines through which crude oil, natural gas and various refined petrochemical products are transported.

Fearing they were witnessing an oil spill, they called the U.S. Coast Guard to report the incident. Lt. Kyle Carter, USCG spokesman in Port Arthur, said they took the report and also advised the witness to call the National Response Center (NRC), the federal government’s national communications center, which is staffed 24 hours a day by U.S. Coast Guard officers and marine science technicians. The NRC is the sole federal point of contact for reporting all hazardous substances and oil spills. The NRC receives all reports of releases involving hazardous substances and oil that trigger the federal notification requirements under several laws.

The report, received at 2:52 p.m. C.S.T., was succinct:

“CALLER REPORTED THAT A DARK BROWN SUBSTANCE WAS SEEN COMING OUT OF THE WATER (POSSIBLY FROM SOME TYPE OF PIPING) FROM AN UNKNOWN SOURCE.”

According to federal disaster reporting protocols, the report was immediately relayed to 14 agencies in the region, from the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Department Criminal Intelligence Unit to the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol office in Port Arthur to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the Texas General Land Office (GLO).

After the tanker Mega Borg spilled 5.1 million gallons of oil 57 miles southeast of Galveston while offloading crude onto another tanker in 1990, the Texas Legislature created the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program and placed it under GLO.

When the tanker Eagle Otome was rammed by a barge in the Sabine Neches Waterway in early 2010, GLO moved swiftly to protect Keith Lake and its protected plant and animal species from the resulting spill.

The GLO has deployed resources along the Texas Gulf Coast to respond immediately to any reports of oil spills.

Photographs of the incident obtained by The Examiner were sent to GLO for inspection. Ross Penton, assistant director in Region 1 for Oil Spill Prevention & Response, recognized the spout in the photos as a likely discharge from a dredging pipeline moving silt from the bottom of the Sabine Neches Waterway to a location where it was needed – in this case from a slip at the new Golden Pass LNG facility nearby to a wildlife management area.

Jim Sutherland, site manager for the Texas Parks & Wildlife of the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area, explained the work in progress.

“We are working with some Ike recovery dollars and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries (program) with the Golden Pass LNG facility to use their dredge material from maintenance at their terminal to replace soils lost in these coastal marshes on the wildlife management area on Hurricane Ike,” said Sutherland.

The wildlife management area is a 24,250-acre tract of fresh, intermediate and brackish water within the prairie-marsh zone that was named in honor of J.D. Murphree, a fallen Texas Game Warden who was murdered by a duck poacher in Jasper County in 1963.

Penton said the dredge pipeline has flanges that could be breached when the silt is transported under high pressure. In fact, the black substance seen by witnesses was not oil but silt – essentially fine soil from the bottom of the waterway. He said the pressure and resulting leak whips the silt into something resembling a mousse. That is what accumulated on shore, not oil or some other petrochemical product.

The good news is that not only is the discharged material not harmful, but the response system put in place to monitor such events worked smoothly to notify relevant agencies and quickly determine the nature of the incident. For all the sophisticated monitoring equipment deployed in the region, it was a vigilant citizen with a cell phone camera who saw something out of order and phoned it in.

In this case, the system worked. Had it been a more serious incident, the early notification would have greatly improved the necessary response.

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