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Littered Highway of Sand : Texas' Trashy Shoreline: Garbage Collector of Gulf

May 03, 1987|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

MUSTANG ISLAND, Tex. — Tony Amos went looking for garbage at dawn.

And of course, he found it. He always does. This is, after all, the Texas coast.

He counted beer cans by the dozen, foam cups by the hundreds, egg cartons, light bulbs, gallon milk jugs, glass bottles, plastic sheeting, fishermen's floats and numerous other items. He even found a cabinet door washed up on the beach.

Once, he retrieved a complete guide to military courts-martial, in two volumes, from the surf.

"I specialize in toilet bowl cleaners from around the world," he said, and he has a collection to prove it.

Amos is no beachcomber. He is a scientist with the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in nearby Port Aransas. He drives a 7 1/2-mile stretch of the beach every other day, studying birds on the way out and items of trash on the way back, recording the numbers of each in a portable computer.

The reason for his interest is simple enough: Texas has the trashiest beaches in the United States, and Amos wants to know how the trash affects the coastal environment.

"How bad is it? Pretty bad," he said.

Others share his concern. Bill Lukens, superintendent of the nearby Padre Island National Seashore, calls his 80-mile stretch of beach "the dirtiest national park in the nation."

Max Hancock, the park's chief ranger, put it this way: "You get everything that everybody ever threw in the Gulf."

Last September, a volunteer cleanup campaign sponsored by the Center for Environmental Education within three hours collected 124 tons of debris from 122 miles of beach--more than a ton for each mile.

Beats Own Record

No other beach cleanup in the country came close to that volume until last weekend, when Texas beat its own record. This time around, volunteers stuffed 138 tons of debris into plastic garbage sacks.

Texas beaches are not despoiled by trash alone; they are often covered, from the dunes to the water's edge, with tire tracks. The state has no law to prohibit cars, trucks and recreational vehicles of all kinds from tooling up and down on the sand.

In fact, Texas beaches are a part of the state's highway system. They have pedestrian crossings and speed limit signs, and cars are allowed on all but a few miles of the coastline. On holidays, long lines of motor vehicles are bumper to bumper on the beach. And no politician who values his office is about to challenge a Texan's right to drive on the sand.

Trash From Elsewhere

But if Texans are responsible for most of the tire tracks on their beaches, they are not responsible for most of the trash. As much as 80% of it comes not from weekend visitors who leave beer cans and paper plates in the sand, but from the Gulf itself, into which ships dump with impunity before they steam into port. Gulf currents are such that garbage dropped anywhere from the East Coast of Florida to Mexican and Central American waters is likely to find its way to Texas shores.

The Gulf is like a giant bathtub where every discarded thing drifts toward Texas. Start with the thousands of vessels that ply the Gulf, from tankers to shrimpers to pleasure boats. Factor in the thousands of offshore oil rigs. Add to them the incentive for foreign ships to jettison their garbage before making port because of strict U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, and the problem becomes enormous.

Environmentalists are concerned because of the danger that trash--especially discarded plastic--poses to marine life.

The tourist industry is also concerned. Tourism is the state's second-largest revenue producer, and roughly a third of those who vacation in Texas visit the Gulf Coast.

Solution Is Complex

For the moment, Texas cannot do much about the dumping far offshore. Those campaigning to clean up the beaches and waters of the Gulf say there is a solution, but that it will take the ratification of international treaties, the policing of ships entering port and the imposition of stiff penalties for dumping.

Garry Mauro, the state land commissioner and a leader in the fight for clean beaches, said it could take three years just to get all those regulations in place, even if all went well. Meanwhile, not only the beaches, but also the coastal wetlands where thousands of migratory birds live in winter, will remain awash with garbage.

'Not Protecting Anything'

"We're not protecting anything until we stop the garbage dumping," Mauro said. "We've got to stop it at the source."

Texas beaches have been garbage-strewn for years. The problem was worse, in fact, when the offshore oil rigs were operating at full capacity, before the bottom fell out of the oil and gas market. Then, metal drums, some full of toxic materials, were washing ashore by the hundreds.

The movement to clean up the Texas beaches got its real start after Linda Maraniss, formerly of Washington, opened a regional office of the Center for Environmental Education in Austin in January, 1986, and went, as a first order of business, to visit the beach on South Padre Island.

Not How It Should Look

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