Texas is one of the nation’s hubs of the oil industry, bringing benefits in terms of the economy and the energy sector. Some downsides can come with that, however.
For example, oil spills can happen, and the equipment used in oil production can be dangerous. Many workers are exposed to toxic substances, leading to health issues, including respiratory problems and brain damage.
The environment and people who don’t work in the oil industry can also be affected. Galveston is a popular Texas beach destination for people from around the state and the country. Still, the area also consistently ranks high in how much pollution is in the water.
The following are some of the things to know about Galveston Bay, the pollution there, and whether you can swim in Galveston.
Galveston deals with a lot of pollution for two different reasons. One was touched on above, which is the oil industry, but Galveston Bay is also a shipping channel, so that sector leads to more pollution than you might see elsewhere.
The Galveston Bay Foundation says that there are toxic pollutants as well as trash that pollute the Bay.
As a result, there are Seafood Consumption Advisories, and there are currently monitoring programs that look at the toxic sediments in the Galveston Bay and Houston Ship Channel. There are elevated sediment concentrations of mercury, organic compounds, and other substances.
Texas does have a program called the Oil Spill Prevention and Response, and it’s one of the best in the world. On average, there have been 226 oil spills reported in the Galveston Bay each year since 2004. Most of these are small, meaning less than five gallons.
Some have been large, though. For example, in September 2016, a spill released 88,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Houston Ship Channel.
In 2019, Galveston Bay did receive a B for pollution sources and events.
Swimming in Galveston Bay
Galveston is frequently cited as one of the most polluted places to swim, despite efforts to curb the pollution.
In 2018, six Galveston beaches were named the most unsafe places to swim in the state by Environment Texas.
The least contaminated that year of the six was Fort Crockett Seawall Park, part of the Galveston Seawall. Galveston Island State Park, however, was declared one of the most unsafe for swimming.
The Galveston Bay Foundation water quality manager said that while bacteria levels in Galveston Bay are usually safe for swimming, there are sometimes spikes in bacteria that make it unsafe after major storms.
Also, the bacteria levels vary based on location, so one part of the Bay may be safe for swimming while another isn’t.
The 2018 Environment Texas report looked at water quality testing data at more than 120 beaches throughout the state and 1,450 freshwater locations. They looked for E. coli in freshwater and enterococcus in saltwater and found that around 50% of sites were unsafe on at least one of the days they tested.
Of course, the most unsafe beaches in the state, according to that report, were actually in the Corpus Christi Bay, where Ropes Park was deemed unsafe 42% of the time it was tested. Cole Park was considered risky 38% of the time it was tested, and Emerald Beach was unsafe 30% of the time.
Brays Bayou in the Houston area was unsafe 100% of the days it was tested, and Buffalo Bayou came in at 87%.
What If You Swim in Contaminated Water?
There will usually be warning advisories if the water is unsafe for swimming, but if you do swim in contaminated water, it can enter your body through your mouth or open wounds or cuts you may have at the time.
You may develop infections of the ear and eye, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal disease if you swim in contaminated water.
Along with swimming, seafood consumption is a big concern in the area.
The Galveston Bay got a C grade in 2018 in terms of seafood consumption safety. The rivers and bayou areas got a D. There are certain species of fish in particular that people are warned against eating when they’re caught in the bayous, rivers, and the shipping channel.
What Can You Do?
Many people love the Galveston area and visit it year-after-year, but what can you do to reduce toxicity and pollution?
First, the Galveston Bay Action Network has an interactive tool that lets you view water-related pollution and waste dumping reports, and you can also submit them. Then, reports are sent to the authorities not to have to go through the trouble to figure out who you should be addressing concerns.
Always dispose of any household hazardous waste the right way, and speak with your local disposal provider about when they’ll be holding recycling events. You can also avoid consuming any seafood you catch in potentially contaminated water.
When you’re at home or in a vacation rental, be aware of the fats and oils you’re pouring down the sink, because this can increase the levels of harmful substances like nitrogen in the Bay and rivers and bayous.
You can also reduce your stormwater runoff with a rain barrel at your home and always throw your trash away when you’re outdoors, including near the beach.
While no one should swim in water when there’s an advisory, some people may be at exceptionally high risk if they do swim, so be aware of this.
For example, if you have cancer, and immune-suppressing condition, liver disease, or diabetes, you should be especially cautious about swimming.
Finally, you can also volunteer at an oyster reef restoration event or wetland event through the Galveston Bay Foundation, if you’d like to help.