Houston area sees a couple of oil spills a day (photos)

Oil spills off the Texas coast have declined dramatically over the past decade, but the Texas General Land Office still responds to one or two a day in the Houston region, an area stretching from Galveston County to Matagorda Bay.

“In the ‘90s, it wasn’t anything to have three to eight spills a day,” said Richard Arnhart, regional director for oil spill prevention and response for the Houston area. “Spills are down, which is a good thing.”

And while “oil spill” evokes images of BP’s Macondo well, which spilled more than 4 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, or the Exxon Valdez, which sent 257,000 barrels of crude into Alaskan waters in 1989, most tracked by the General Land Office are small by comparison.

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Arnhart said anything that results in a sheen or discoloration in the water counts as a spill.

He and other members of the agency hosted an open house for members of the media Tuesday to explain how they prepare for and respond to oil spills.

Arnhart said the last two significant spills his office has dealt with were the Highland Bayou spill on March 22, 2012, which involved 130 barrels at the Dune Energy facility in Hitchcock, and the Texas City Dike spill on Aug. 19, 2011, when about 35 barrels spilled during an overfill at a Buffalo Marine tank at a Port of Texas City dock.

He and other land office officials said the declining number of spills is probably due both to better safety measures — including such things as double-hulled cargo ships — and caution prompted in part by the high cost of a spill.

“Everyone understands oil spills are expensive,” said Greg Pollock, deputy commissioner of the land office.

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A spill will shut down the Houston Ship Channel, and the responsible party can be required to pay damages to shippers affected by the lost time.

“The cost for a day of an oil spill is outrageous,” Pollock said.

Authority granted in 1991

There were no clear lines of authority until 1991, when the Legislature gave the General Land Office authority over oil spills in tidal rivers and other waterways and for 10 miles out from shore.

That was sparked by public attention from the Exxon Valdez and, in 1990, an explosion aboard the Mega Borg, a ship about 60 miles from Galveston. Five men were killed and 5.1 million gallons of oil spilled.

Most of the oil burned so the spill had little impact on the coast, but Pollock said it was a reminder that no state agency was in charge of offshore oil spills.

A month later, a barge and ship collided in Galveston Bay, spilling almost 700,000 gallons of fuel oil into the bay.

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The 1991 legislation designated the General Land Office to oversee spill response and funded the work through a surcharge on crude oil loaded and offloaded at Texas ports.

Arnhart said the agency also is involved in spills farther from shore. He noted that land office employees were part of a task force in Galveston after the Macondo blowout in 2010.

The Texas coast was spared the most serious damage from that disaster, which in addition to the spill killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

The land office can assess penalties based on the amount of oil involved, similar to federal penalties assessed under the Clean Water Act. Vessels also are required to maintain contingency plans and register with the General Land Office; if they do not, land office staff members can board the vessels to ensure that they comply.

Pollock said the agency inspects more than 600 facilities, from bait stands to refineries, and more than 1,500 vessels every year.

Patrolling the Ship Channel is a journey between tugboats and tankers, bird rookeries and refineries.

“You have industry, and you have environmental concerns,” Arnhart said as response officer Gray Powell idled a land office boat near the Exxon Mobil refinery, where two oil tankers sat at a dock and, at the other end of the plant, a chemical tanker sat at another. “The San Jacinto Monument is nearby. Marshland. Historical value we have to protect.

“We know we have to be prepared.”