Nurdles Are Invading Texas Beaches

Lentil sized beads known as nurdles litter a Texas beach near Port Aransas. (Jace Tunnell)

Port Aransas, Texas—At first glance they may look like some sort of natural substance, perhaps the eggs of some shore bird or possibly even some exotic form of sea life. But they are far from natural by products of a clean ocean.
These lentil-sized beads that are now washing up by the millions near Corpus Christi, Texas are a raw material used to make plastic products.

Researchers say that these compounds, known as nurdles could cause damage to wildlife such as fish and birds that eat them.

FIDRA, a conservation group based in Scotland, said on Wednesday that they estimate that billions of the tiny pellets escape into the environment each year.

These tiny nurdles end up in the environment during the manufacturing process, transport or use of plastic products near oceans and waterways.

Nurdles sometimes accidentally end up in the world’s rivers and oceans or they fall into drains where they are washed out to sea.

As for the ones that have washed up here in Texas, it is unclear exactly where they came from or how they actually arrived along Texas beaches, but some researchers are working hard to get those answers.

Jace Tunnell, Director of the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve at The University of Texas Marine Science Institute at Austin, says that the area of Texas beach that he had noticed this most recent washup of nurdles has been 3 miles south of Bob Hall to the south jetty in Port Aransas, which totals around 23 miles. In the coming days, researchers will be searching more areas to help determine the extent of this current invasion.

“I’ve not ever seen nurdles on the beach; however, I know I’ve heard of people talking about them before so I’m sure they were out there, but just not in numbers that were easily seen”, Tunnell said.

Friday was the first time Tunnell himself had seen them.

Experts warn nurdles can soak up chemical pollutants from their surroundings and then release toxins into the animals that eat them, including the possibility of game fish commonly caught and consumed by recreational anglers along the coast.

An X-ray recently revealed some form of foreign body inside a rescued Hawksbill sea turtle. Tunnell says that due to the way that the rehabilitation tank is designed along with other factors, it would be difficult to say with 100% certainty that the foreign object was in fact a nurdle, but there is a very high likelihood that it could have been.

An X-Ray taken on September 10, 2018 of a Hawksbill Sea Turtle shows a foreign object inside the turtle’s body. The object can be clearly seen in the upper left corner of the X-Ray (Amos Rehabilitation Keep Photo. Used with Permission)

Tunnell says that they can confirm however, that the object is however  something that is not natural in material, and that the object shown in the x-ray is either metal or plastic.

As far for what happened to the foreign object, Tunnell says that the rehabilitator  completed another X-ray two weeks after the original was taken and the objects were gone, likely meaning that the foreign debris passed through the Hawksbill’s system.

Where Do Nurdles Come From?

Nurdles littering a section of Texas beach near Port Aransas, Texas. (Jace Tunnell)

It’s hard to know exactly where the nurdles originated, though one thing is certain, they are a problem all over the world.

Here along the Texas coast, there are at least 100 facilities that manufacture or otherwise handle these small pollutants.

One such location is located fairly near to the currently impacted area near Port Aransas and Corpus Christi.

A large plastics manufacturer, Formosa  USA is located in Point Comfort, Texas.

Brian McGovern, a spokesperson with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality confirmed on Wednesday that back on August 23, 2018, the agency received a report of a release of an unknown amount of accumulated white, plastic pellets at the Texas Department of Transportation weigh station/right-of-way along the northbound lane of Highway 35 at the intersection of Farm to Market 1593 in Port Comfort, Calhoun County, Texas.

Map location of Formosa USA, in Point Comfort, Texas. (Google Maps)  

McGovern said that this particular release was referred to the Texas Department of Transportation, who will oversee the cleanup of the material, as it was located on their right of way.

McGovern said that TCEQ is conducting an investigation of this incident.
Steve Rice, a spokesperson with Formosa USA said on Wednesday that he was unsure of any ongoing investigation or reported releases in the recent past from the company’s Point Comfort, Texas plant..

“I know nothing of this incident nor of any release”, claims Rice. Though he did admit to knowing of an ongoing, unrelated lawsuit involving the company.

McGovern, also confirmed that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality responded to reports of a wash up on Sept. 28, 2018. The TCEQ has referred that  issue to the Nueces County Coastal Parks.

Formosa is not the only company in the area the produces plastics.

Midland, Michigan based Dow Chemical also has a heavy presence in the Point Comfort area, along San Antonio Bay near the shores of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Concerningly enough, these two specific producers operate facilities that lie  only mere nautical miles from the grounds that the highly endangered whooping cranes call home during the fall and winter months each year.

Though experts suggest that it is not likely the endangered whooping cranes would eat the nurdles, they do indicate that it would be possible for birds, including the endangered whooping cranes to ingest possible toxins by proxy, through eating fish and crustaceans that do accidentally consume the plastic beads. That in itself could cause additional problems for the environment.

What Can Be Done?

For now, the focus remains largely on clean up efforts.

The responsibility for cleaning the  wash up along beaches near Corpus Christi falls to the Nueces County Coastal Parks Department and to the taxpayers.

Not surprisingly, Steve Rice with Formosa USA,  claims that they were aware of doors being left open on rail cars which often lead to releases of these nurdles into the environment. Those rail cars are used to transport plastics that often pass across bridges over area bays and area waterways.

“This has been a problem and we are working to make our customers aware of it and teach them how to close the doors on the rail cars so that this doesn’t happen.”

Nurdles along a Texas beach (Jace Tunnell)

Rice says that FORMOSA USA has made safety videos and conducted training to prevent such cases—especially with empty rail cars returning to the facility.

“We are trying to be proactive in this” says Rice.

But training itself doesn’t seem to be enough.

As for now, Jace Tunnell proposes creating a citizen scientist group to help collect data that researchers could use.

“For starting a Citizen Scientist Program it’s pretty simple. We establish a simple way to collect data and then we get volunteers to do it. We already have a long list of volunteers that work with us that we could recruit quickly”, Tunnell says.

And though the task of identifying culprits and sources could be a tall order, quick action, good data collection, solid research and good old fashioned corporate responsibility sounds like a good place to start.