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SKULL CREEK: State agency food safety gaps exposed

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SKULL CREEK: State agency food safety gaps exposed

May 08, 2019 - 00:00
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AUSTIN – The two State agencies tasked with investigating chemical spills and fish kills on Texas waterways have no procedures in place and no responsibility to notify a third state agency that is actually responsible for issuing fishing bans and advisories of their findings or reported incidents, an investigation by The Colorado County Citizen has learned.

Last week, The Citizen reported that officials with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the agency tasked with issuing fishing bans and advisories on Texas waterways, didn’t have enough funds to conduct the tests necessary to determine if a fishing advisory or ban was necessary along the Colorado River near its confluence with Skull Creek.

The dark, black, smelly contamination first reported in the creek on Feb. 8 was discovered in the Colorado River in mid-April, and large clouds of the pollution were noticed in the river by participants in a cat-fishing tournament April 27-28, and brought to the attention of The Citizen.

What actually happens when fish kills or water contamination is reported by state agencies, and what is supposed to happen?

Although it would seem logical to report fish kills or major water contamination to DSHS, the agency that issues fishing advisories, neither the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department nor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality say that is part of their procedures.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says it notifies the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department when it becomes aware of a fish kill.

“When TCEQ becomes aware of a fish kill, the TCEQ notifies TPWD who has primary jurisdiction over fish and wildlife resources and would be responsible for conducting an investigation into the cause, responsible party and monetary value. The TCEQ would conduct an investigation of any issues that fall within our jurisdiction,” said TCEQ Media Relations Specialist Marty Otero.

Otero said the agency notifies TPWD of any “reported fish or aquatic life endangerment or kills in accordance with Texas Parks and Wildlife Code §12.0011 as TPWD is the state agency with primary responsibility for protecting the state’s fish and wildlife resources, to include investigating fish kills,” Otero said.

Meanwhile, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department says its sampling is done for its own purposes, and “may not necessarily be the same type of sampling that DSHS requires to make a determination on consumption advisories,” said Julie Hagen, press spokesperson for Texas Parks & Wildlife.

Hagen also said the agency’s internal protocols require no reporting of a fish kill to DSHS.

“TPWD fish kill protocol does not require we report fish kills to DSHS,” Hagen said.

“TPWD protocol indicates that DSHS could be notified if subsequent information from our initial investigation suggests potential for human health issues,” Hagen continued.

In connection with Skull Creek, TCEQ regulators determined as early as Feb. 12 that the water in Skull Creek posed a substantial threat to humans and wildlife.

For DSHS part, it says it is typically only involved in certain types of fish kill.

“We wouldn’t necessarily be involved in every fish kill,” said Chris Van Dolen, spokesperson for DSHS.

“There are a couple of areas of our agency that could be involved in a situation where there’s some kind of contamination threatening a body of water from which people eat fish. In a situation like this, our Environmental Surveillance and Toxicology Branch generally would tend to be more involved (as they are in this case) in looking at the available data and making public health recommendations on swimming, fishing, etc.,” Van Dolen said.

He also said that the agency’s division that focuses on seafood and aquatic life typically focuses on longer-term contaminations.

“Our Seafood and Aquatic Life Unit often focuses on longer-term contaminants that build up and persist in the environment over a period of years (mercury, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides) along with the safety of shellfish. When it comes to testing fish tissue, the process they use is also a long-term one…just the lab portion takes six to eight months, so it’s limited in how useful it would be in a more acute situation like this,” Van Dolen said. ‘

And, while it is still unclear when DSHS was brought in to address issues relating to contamination and potential fishing bans on the Colorado River (see related story, page 7), TCEQ says it brought them to the investigation.

“In this instance, a recommendation was made to include DSHS in the response efforts due to concerns about contact recreation and fish consumption,” Otero wrote late Monday morning.