Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Houston Chronicle
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Environmental organizations are raising an alarm over the potential health impacts of chemicals spilled Feb. 3 into Sims Bayou near Hobby Airport. An estimated 64,000 gallons of jet fuel escaped from a Southwest Airlines-owned fuel storage facility.
Amy Sullivan, who has been monitoring the water quality in Sims Bayou for six years with the water monitoring network Texas Stream Team, said she was flabbergasted Thursday when she went to sample the bayou. A pearly film marbled the water’s surface, and the overpowering stench of fuel permeated the air.
As Sullivan evaluated the situation, she saw a group of people park their van and emerge with three fishing rods and a Hibachi grill.
“I thought, they’re not only planning on catching the fish — they’re going to eat it,” she said. “We’ve got to warn people.”
Jet A fuel, the type involved in the accident, is a confirmed animal carcinogen with unknown relevance to humans, according to the Chevron Phillips safety sheet on the chemical. One ingredient, naphthalene, is listed as “immediately dangerous to life or health” at concentrations of 250 parts per million. It was not clear what long-term impacts the spill might have on the health of the bayou and nearby residents.
The spill was the result of a pump malfunction at the Southwest facility that stores fuel at Hobby Airport, said Southwest Airlines in a statement. The facility is run by SwissPort, a fuel vendor based out of Switzerland that could not be reached on Sunday.
“We are actively working with the Coast Guard and local authorities to recover and contain fuel that escaped the facility, as well as investigate the cause of the pump malfunction,” said Southwest Airlines. “Additionally, SwissPort, our fuel vendor, is working with their emergency response partners to mitigate the release.” Mitigation is expected to take a few weeks.
“It’s still ongoing, and I’m not going to comment on the spill cleanup,” said an employee at Phoenix Pollution Control, a Baytown-based company that responds to chemical spills and was seen at the site of the Hobby Airport fuel spill.
While investigating the fuel contamination in Sims Bayou, the Houston Health Department also discovered illegal grease discharge from the Jack in the Box on Airport Boulevard was making its way into the waters.
Whether SwissPort or Jack in the Box will face consequences for the contamination depends on the results of the investigation, said Porfirio Villarreal, public information officer for the Houston Health Department. Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Houston Public Works are also involved in the investigation.
Villarreal added that the health department always advises against consuming fish from Houston’s bayous, because chemicals from across the city are washed into the waterways whenever it rains. “It’s contaminated,” he explained. “No one should be eating from that bayou.”
Claudia Gee Vassar, president of the Houston Botanic Garden, a park slated to open in 2020 that is bisected by Sims Bayou, said she was troubled about the implications for local ecosystems and the public. “Our concern is to make sure we are protecting the soils, the land and the habitat for animals and the environment for all of our neighbors,” she said.
Turtles, toads and over 100 species of birds — including the great blue heron, double-crested cormorant and bald eagle — frequent Sims Bayou, and people fish from its waters. Sims Bayou is known for bass, carp and channel catfish.
Mary Anne Weber, director of the Houston Audubon Raptor and Education Center at Sims Bayou, said she has noticed temporary floating barriers — typically used to contain oil spills — in Sims Bayou since Feb. 4. She has seen workers on boats using hoses to vacuum the fuel from the water’s surface.
“How could so much fail so dramatically?” asked Sarah Bernhardt, president of the Bayou Preservation Association. “It wasn’t small — 64,000 gallons, that’s a lot of barrels of oil. And Sims Bayou is such an important recreational location for fishing and paddling. We’re very concerned that this could be affecting local residents.”
And while people are still visiting Sims Bayou, other locals have been conspicuously missing.
“I haven’t seen the usual ducks and birds that are on the bayou since Monday,” Weber said. She said the sudden activity associated with the cleanup may have scared them off.