By: Dennis Baker
There’s never a good outcome after ships collide. But after a March 22, 2014 accident in which a barge and a ship collided in the Houston Ship Channel, a collaborative, flexible response led by FDA and its state partners prevented a catastrophe. Spilled into the waterway were 167,800 gallons of bunker fuel, a waste product from traditional fuel oil processing that is a cross between a solid and a liquid. What followed the collision was an immediate and coordinated federal-state response, underscoring the collaborative flexibility of FDA.
FDA’s Dallas District Office, Office of Emergency Operations, and the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) began working together within 24 hours of the spill. Trained personnel from FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs’ Southwest Region and Dallas District were communicating daily with state public health officials and investigating the risks to public health. A Southwest Region shellfish specialist, Chris Brooks, was part of a team monitoring reports from DSHS’ Seafood Safety Group regarding the condition of Galveston Bay, into which the channel flows to the south.
As a result of such close and early collaboration following the spill, the DSHS and the Dallas District Office jointly activated the Texas Rapid Response Team (RRT) on March 27 for information and coordination purposes, and Incident Commanders were appointed. Then, a very quick response unfolded.
- More than 70 seafood firms were identified by DSHS—with the list growing to 103 firms—and visits were scheduled to ensure their products were not contaminated.
- A state-wide consumer alert was broadcast to inform the public about the spill and dockside deliveries of seafood were monitored throughout the area.
- A massive oil recovery operation swung into place as the oil slick moved southward toward Matagorda Bay. Much of the bunker fuel spilled was ultimately captured by spill containment equipment.
- The state issued a public consumption advisory recommending that people not eat fish, crabs or shrimp from the Galveston and Matagorda bays.
- The DSHS contacted licensed seafood firms from Beaumont to Corpus Christi, an expanse of some 300 miles, and advised them to review their HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan provisions for chemical contaminants. The firms were also encouraged to strengthen their dockside receipt procedures that include visual and organoleptic (taste, color, odor and feel) exams prior to accepting seafood.
This is but a snapshot of the mechanics of a successful federal-state collaborative effort, an immediate response to protect public health.
Dennis Baker is FDA’s Regional Food and Drug Director, Office of Regulatory Affairs