Environmental groups in Corpus Christi say they’re still finding remnants from oil spill

An oil spill into Corpus Christi Bay has left lingering questions into what the full impact will be to wildlife and the environment, as well as to how effectively officials notified the public.

The spill was first reported on Dec. 24, originating from a pipe failure at the Flint Hills Resources crude oil terminal across the bay from Corpus Christi in Ingleside. While initially thought to have been a spill of 90 barrels of light crude, a later estimation put it at 335 barrels, or 14,000 gallons.

The cleanup has been largely reported to be at or near completion, but some – including several environmental groups in the Coastal Bend region – are pushing back against that narrative.

Armon Alex, co-founder of the Gulf of Mexico Youth Climate Summit and co-chair of the Corpus Christi Mayor’s Environmental Task Force, has helped organize beach cleanups in search of light crude washing onto area beaches. He joined Texas Standard to talk about what he’s seen. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Give us some background here. When did residents first start hearing about this spill? I mean, it was Christmas Eve, right? And a lot of folks were very busy getting ready for the big holiday. 

Armon Alex: I mean, that’s absolutely correct. I think it’s interesting: Unfortunately, when you ask a lot of the neighbors even today here in the Coastal Bend if they knew there was an oil spill, they’ll tell you no. As a matter of fact, when I was visiting the North Beach area here in Corpus Christi Bay – that’s maybe just a few miles from the original location of the oil spill – I spoke to a lot of folks on that specific beach, and 100% of them said they had no idea that there was an oil spill. So there was a lack of communication both on the perpetrator side of the spill as well as city management.

I know that you and others have been out looking for light crude that might still be washing up on shores. What have you found?

Whenever I found out originally that there was a crude oil spill, it was the morning of Christmas. I had been following along with some reports, and I think maybe a few days after that was whenever I decided, “you know, this is still going on, I need to see it for myself.” So on a Monday, I went and visited the University Beach right outside Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. The folks that were cleaning up the oil spill, the third parties that Flint Hills Resources had hired, they were cleaning it up. They had reported they were cleaning up the University Beach that morning. And so I went in just a few hours after them to see what was going on. I wanted to see for myself. And I think I was on the beach for at least, you know, not even longer than a minute and I was finding these popcorn-sized, paraffin wax-looking, caramel-colored and chemical stench coming off the beach. And I was finding them. The next day I went down over to North Beach. That was the second location that they did a lot of the cleanup. I did the same thing: took a few steps onto the shoreline, and I was finding them left and right. I mentioned earlier that folks didn’t know that there was an oil spill, and that was very apparent because as I’m collecting these toxic remnants off of our shoreline, you see families and, you know, kids and dogs all playing innocently, and they had no idea.

Apparently about a dozen birds have been found dead after exposure to this crude. What about if a person – you know, going up, playing on the beach, swimming out in the waters – happens upon some some of this stuff that you describe washed up on a beach. What if you come into contact with that?

Well, you know, I’m glad that you had mentioned that wildlife portion. Thirteen birds have been reported as of right now. It’s really difficult to be able to find these animals in situations like this unless you are being active about finding them. So there may be unreported birds and unreported wildlife that have been injured. So 13 birds and two sea turtles have died because of this. And we’re not even thinking about the fish in the water columns. This popcorn paraffin crude oil bobs up and down in the water line. And we know that fish eat everything. You know, when a human comes in contact with this, it’s a natural skin irritant. So whenever we’re cleaning up this crude oil, we wear gloves – it’s hazardous waste, and we recommend and encourage people not to clean it up, but to report it to the correct folks. Flint Hills Resources has a specific number [361-396-2831]. Unfortunately, myself and my team have called that number a few times and haven’t received any phone call back or no one has answered.

 One of the balls of light crude that washed up onto Corpus Christi beaches following an oil spill across the bay.

One of the balls of light crude that washed up onto Corpus Christi beaches following an oil spill across the bay.

A week or so ago, I believe the local newspaper was reporting that the oil spill cleanup was largely complete. What’s your take there?

You know, that’s correct. Between them, as well as the city management, they’re saying that this job is almost done. And, you know, the fact that on Jan. 10 there was an announcement the city released, as well as Flint Hills Resources, that said they’re wrapping up and they’re decreasing their cleanup operations… The day before, on Jan. 9, the Gulf of Mexico Youth Climate Summit – as well as the Islander Green Team and the local Sierra Club chapter – we hosted, unfortunately, the first ever oil spill cleanup led by the community, and we were able to collect a five-gallon bucket of crude oil, as well as about 75 pounds of trash. We presented that in front of City Council on the 10th. This job is not done.

What are you telling the City Council, and are they listening? I know you’re on the mayor’s Environmental Task Force down there – what do they have to say about it? 

You know, I think the Mayor’s Environmental Task Force is positioned to be able to focus on smaller environmental issues, like composting and recycling programs for the city, and trash cleanups. Whenever it comes to responding to environmental manmade disasters, the Mayor’s Environmental Task Force is not ready for that. And that’s why we’re encouraging, as an organization, that the city develop and establish a committee on sustainability and resilience, where we’re able to focus on things like having rapid response teams to these kind of manmade environmental disasters, developing climate action plans, researching how the climate crisis will impact this area, and being more prepared to make sure that we’re having sustainable practices as a city, but making sure that our area is resilient as we undergo more extreme weather events.

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