A federal judge in Galveston has sent an Obama-era regulation that expanded jurisdiction over waterways back to the Trump administration for review, a move some environmentalists fear could weaken protections for Texans’ drinking water.
While U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr. did not rule on the merits and didn’t vacate the so-called Clean Water Act change, he wrote that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers under Obama failed to allow the public to comment after making significant changes to the final rule.
In 2015, seeking to put an end to a decades-long debate over which wetlands and waterways were covered by the Clean Water Act, the EPA issued a new rule that expanded federal jurisdiction over tributaries.
Several suits ensued, including one by Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana along with a coalition of farm and industry groups, calling it a federal overreach and overly broad.
The Obama rule is still in effect in 22 states and blocked by legal decision in 28 others, including Texas. And under Hanks’ decision Tuesday, a preliminary injunction issued on Sept. 12, 2018 remains in place. A federal judge in South Caroline last year prevented the Trump administration from delaying the regulation nationwide as it worked on its own version.
The judge’s ruling instead focused on differences between the proposed rule and the final regulation; he found the changes resulted in what a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act by not giving the public a meaningful opportunity to comment.
Seven hours after two vessels collided in the Houston Ship Channel this month, causing a massive spill of a gasoline blend with high concentrations of benzene, a state contractor detected levels of the cancer-causing chemical that exceeded the state’s threshold for short-term exposure.
In fact, some Seabrook residents could have been exposed to levels of benzene 14 times higher than the point at which state officials consider it a cause for worry.
Yet, no one was notified for hours.
The lapse in communication is a symptom of a system that fails to inform communities when they are potentially exposed to dangerous chemicals, critics say. Some believe the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality could be doing more.
“I’m questioning what, if any, measure the agency is taking to ensure that public health is being considered as they are recording these measurements,” said Elena Craft, an air quality expert with the Environmental Defense Fund. “I can’t emphasize how extraordinarily high they are.”
About 1,200 dead animals, most of them juvenile fish, washed up onto the Galveston Bay Foundation’s property in Kemah after two vessels collided on the Houston Ship Channel Friday. The spill sent about 9,000 barrels of gasoline blend into the busy waterway.
Bob Stokes, president of the foundation, said about 1,000 juvenile fish, roughly 1-inch long, a handful of adult flounder, sheepshead and a variety of drum species, and about 200 blue crabs appeared Sunday on the property about eight miles southwest of the collision.
The ship channel was temporarily closed after the 755-foot tanker Genesis River, carrying liquefied natural gas, collided Friday afternoon with a tugboat pushing two barges. One barge capsized and the other was damaged, leaking a gasoline product called reformate, a highly flammable chemical that’s mixed with gasoline and is dangerous to marine life. It contains significant amounts of benzene, toluene, and xylene.
Officials on Monday reported numerous dead fish in an isolated area, one raccoon and three birds were found dead on the barge. Foundation members also spotted dead fish Monday, but in much smaller numbers, Stokes said. Efforts to skim the material out of the ship channel may have contributed to the reduction.
Researchers in Texas and North Carolina have partnered with a New York foundation to better understand the environmental impacts of natural disasters and the losses they might present in the Galveston Bay.
“Hurricanes Ike and Harvey have revealed substantial flooding risks in the Houston metro region, particularly those that occur outside the 100-year FEMA floodplains where the vast majority of properties remain uninsured by the federal government,” Gregory Characklis, a professor of environmental science and engineering at the University of North Carolina, said in a news release.
For several years, the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center and the University of North Carolina’s Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems have worked to figure out what are the risks — to public health and financially — to communities when there are a lot of contaminated sediments in a body of water stirred up by a hurricane or some sort of extreme event, and then deposited on land during flooding, said Characklis in a telephone interview.
The First Street Foundation uses large real-estate data sets and risk modeling techniques to quantify potential home losses due to flood risks. It recently reported that sea level rise has cost Texas homeowners $76.4 million in potential property value, with Galveston hit the hardest.
Heavy rains this week caused thousands of gallons of water with raw sewage to overflow in at least three area cities, including Houston.
Some areas in Harris County have seen more than 14 inches of rain in the past seven days, with more heavy rainfall expected to hit the region this weekend.
A sewer spill of domestic wastewater mixed with storm water was reported Friday morning on Milam Street and Washington Avenue near the University of Houston Downtown, leading to an overflow of nearly 150,000 gallons between 9 a.m. and close to 2 p.m., according to Alanna Reed, director of communications for Houston’s public works department.
Thirty miles to the east, Baytown experienced several overflows this week due to runoff filling manholes. Black Duck Bay had eight manholes overflow for a total of about 470,000 gallons in two separate incidents, while another 276,150 gallons overflowed from Burnett Bay on Thursday.
And in Pearland, officials reported that about 654,000 gallons of wastewater from domestic uses overflowed one manhole inside the Barry Rose Water Reclamation Facility and at four manholes outside the facility, which led to a drainage ditch that flows out to Clear Creek near Barry Rose and Pearland Parkway.