Water Pollution in the Lone Star State

Home to almost 30 million people, the #1 biggest rodeo in the world, the live music capital of the world, and three of the top ten most populous cities in the United States; Texas is booming. But the Lone Star State has another first place distinction unknown to many Texans: the state ranks first in violating water pollution rules and regulations (Sadasivam 1). The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is responsible for enforcing environmental regulations in Texas, but according to John Rumpler, one of the authors of the 2018 Wasting our Waterways report, the TCEQ is not doing its job “in terms of either enforcing limits on pollution, or attaching stringent enough pollution limits in the first place to ensure that Texas rivers are clean” (Edelman 17). In 2012, Texas polluters released about 16.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals into waterways (Edelman 2) and produced 34 million “toxicity-weighted pounds”, more than double the rest of the country combined. Texas has created a serious problem for itself in allowing corporate offenders like the Dow chemical plant in Freeport, Texas, to dump toxic chemicals into waterways. Communities across the state, animals and wildlife, and our rivers, lakes, and oceans suffer at the hand of large Texas polluters.

Across the state, corporate companies, often large industrial facilities, are dumping pollutants such as toxic chemicals, cancer-causing chemicals, ammonia, phenol, sulfides, and lead, to name a few, into Texas rivers and waterways (ESRI 1). “For instance, between January 2016 and September 2017, Ineos USA’s facility in Brazoria County violated their permit to dump wastewater into Chocolate Bayou eight times. In all cases, the company released waste with high levels of E. coli, a bacteria that indicates the presence of feces.” (Sadasivam 2). This facility has only been in compliance with the Clean Water Act a total of 12 months of the last three years, and the TCEQ has not fined the facility once. The Ineos facility is one of 269 Texas industrial facilities that has violated wastewater permits and dumped waste into rivers, lakes, or bays that the EPA has deemed as “impaired”. But why stop if no one enforces the rules? “Law without enforcement is no law at all” exclaimed Victor Flatt, Chair of the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources (EENR) Center at the University of Houston Law Center in a news release from EnvironmentTexas.org. “Enforcement of environmental law is crucial to ensuring that the public health is protected,” (Environment Texas 6). Polluters of our waterways are rarely facing penalties, giving them no reason to stop polluting or take action to better their disposal practices. If consequences are not put in place, companies like Ineos will continue to pollute Texas water.

The Dow Gulfstream Expansion Project in Freeport, Texas, 2015

The fish and wildlife who call them home are stakeholders in this problem as well, in addition to the rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans themselves. Known as “the river of death” (Smore 1), the Trinity River is ranked at the third most polluted river in Texas with about 912,685 pounds of litter and 657 pounds of toxic discharge found over the years (Smore 1). This is just one example of one of the main water sources in Texas being polluted. There are 14 major rivers in Texas: The Brazos, Canadian, Colorado, Guadalupe, Lavaca, Neches, Nueces, and Pecos River, Red River, Rio Grande, Sabine, San Antonio, San Jacinto, and Trinity River, all of which are dirtied with pollutants ranging from oil to toxic chemicals. Texas is even known as a “hotspot” for fish mortalities relative to the other 22 coastal U.S. states and the fish and wildlife of Texas as seen the consequences of “high-density industrialization and urbanization along several coastal centers” (Thronson Quigg 1). In damaged river ecosystems, pollution can directly kill and harm fish, or change the makeup of the fish’s surrounding, even killing off sources of food. According to the 1997 Texas Parks and Wildlife publication, Thirty Years of Investigating Fish and Wildlife Kills and Pollution in Texas, “of the total numbers of fish and wildlife estimated killed, 52% were due to human activities, whether pollution, modification of wildlife habitat, or other activity.” (Contreras 3). If state and federal governments do not act quickly and with determination, companies such as Dow and Ineos will continue to dump toxic waste into vital river and water ecosystems and our public health and the environment will be at risk.

Click here to view an interactive story map about the 14 Texas rivers and the nearby chemical plants and oil fields.

The Texans who use the countless rivers, streams, lakes, bays, and coast are massive stakeholders in the fight against water pollution and the companies and regulators that allow it. Texans who fish, swim, play, relax, drink, exercise, and live near these bodies of water should have the desire to keep them clean and fight for local and federal governments to keep these resources safe. In a recent article from Grist, “…the state moved to allow oil drillers to apply for permits to use wastewater from oil sites to replenish the state’s aquifers, which are sometimes used for drinking water. At some sites, six times more water than oil is removed from the ground during the drilling process, but the issue with wastewater is its toxicity. To become safe, it requires an extensive treatment process. Scientists and environmental groups are skeptical of the plan because little is known about what risks the water could pose even after treatment if it’s introduced into the state’s water system.” (Mahoney 6). Furthermore, in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit, Texas’ water treatment system became congested when human waste, chemical toxins and fecal bacteria were released into the water supply following spills and disruptions at wastewater treatment plants. Rules and regulations need to be enacted upon companies that release toxic chemicals so that this wastewater treatment plant was never put in the aforementioned situation.

As someone who grew up on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers in the Texas Hill Country, it is of upmost importance to keep our freshwater clean for the sake of the ecosystem, the wildlife, and for our communities. In recent years, I have experienced first-hand the large amounts of trash and pollution in our rivers, and have seen the large amounts of run-off and pollutants spilled into our waterways from large corporations operating on the Texas coast. I hope to bring awareness to my peers, conservation-minded Texans, those who fish on our lakes and rivers, and even those who work for and defend large facilities and corporations polluting Texas water. I found my passion for defending wildlife and learning about water sustainability at a young age, and since then have fought to bring awareness to my community through co-founding Well Aware at UT Austin, participating in lake clean-ups, and writing to local politicians in hopes that they will defend Texas water. Water pollution will inevitably affect every Texan, whether it be the rivers they float on, the fish they eat, or the lake they visit during the summer. I urge ever Texan to stand up for our aquatic ecosystems before it is too late.

Works Cited

Contreras, Cindy. “Thirty Years of Investigating Fish and Wildlife Kills and Pollution in Texas.” Texas Parks and Wildlife , tpwd.texas.gov/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_rp_v3400_1044.pdf.

Edelman, Gilad. “Texas Among Nation’s Worst Water Polluters.” The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune, 19 June 2014, www.texastribune.org/2014/06/19/texas-among-nations-worst-water-polluters/.

Mahoney, Adam. “Texas’ Water Problems Started Way before the Winter Storm.” Grist, 18 Feb. 2021, grist.org/justice/texas-water-quality-contamination-winter-storm/.

Metzger, Luke. “14.6 Million Pounds of Toxic Chemicals Dumped into Texas’ Waterways.” 14.6 Million Pounds of Toxic Chemicals Dumped into Texas’ Waterways | Environment Texas, 22 Mar. 2012, environmenttexas.org/news/txe/146-million-pounds-toxic-chemicals-dumped-texas%E2%80%99-waterways.

Sadasivam, Naveena. “Dirtying the Waters: Texas Ranks First in Violating Water Pollution Rules.” The Texas Observer, 20 Apr. 2019, www.texasobserver.org/dirtying-the-waters-texas-ranks-first-in-violating-water-rules/.

“Story Map Journal.” Arcgis.com, www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=8ab1ab5d352a4e5898d253b1a83b58b2.

Thronson, Amanda, and Antoinetta Quigg. “Fifty-Five Years of Fish Kills in Coastal Texas.” JStor.org, Sept. 2008, www.jstor.org/stable/40663477?seq=1.

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