The sight was startling to residents walking along the West Fork of the Trinity River last month. Dozens of hand sanitizer bottles, some covered in ash, were seemingly dumped into an inlet not far from the Henderson Bridge in central Fort Worth.

Dead fish accompanied the bottles. A TikTok video of the scene earned 255,000 views with an alarming message: “Criminal levels of hand sanitizer pollution.”

@into_the_map

Someone dumped thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer into the Trinity river in Fort Worth Texas. You can smell the alcohol. I’m going to come back and clean it up. #fortworth #plastic #pollution #criminal

♬ original sound – into_the_map

An Oct. 6 warehouse fire that burned for several days at 2317 Cullen St. in the Foundry District appears to be the cause behind the fish kill, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Fox4 News first reported the link between the two incidents. 

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s kills and spills team deployed Oct. 21 to conduct an assessment of the fish kill, said Kirk McDonnell, a department spokesperson. 

“It was determined that fish died as a result of low dissolved oxygen levels caused by the discharge of fire water from firefighting efforts” on the property, McDonnell wrote by email. 

Without enough dissolved oxygen in the water, fish can’t “breathe” through their gills, according to the department. Low oxygen can be a result of human activities, such as toxic chemical spills or dam maintenance that impacts natural resources. Natural occurrences like photosynthesis or extreme weather can also cause low oxygen levels and result in fish kills, according to the agency. 

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is working with agencies like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the city of Fort Worth and the Tarrant Regional Water District to monitor the outcome of the fire, McDonnell added. 

“A hazmat team has been retained by the owner of the property to address remediation efforts, including disposal of fish,” McDonnell wrote by email. 

The property, which was formerly leased to Metro Irrigation Supply Co. and Horizon Distributors, is owned by McDonald Enterprises, according to Tarrant Appraisal District records. The company’s voicemail box was full when reached by the Fort Worth Report.

A listing to lease the Cullen Street property, two blocks north of White Settlement Road, is posted on LanCarte Commercial Real Estate Inc.’s website. The warehouse was listed as a 33,000 square-foot, free-standing concrete structure built in 1950. Sarah LanCarte, the founder of LanCarte Commercial, said her company does not own the property and was not involved in its sale. 

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has an open investigation to evaluate the adequacy of the fire response, which includes disposal of the waste and remediation of impacted land and water areas, said Gary Rasp, an agency spokesperson. Initial air monitoring indicated that air quality was not affected, Rasp added. 

Investigators also collected water samples from the Trinity River. A preliminary review of the results found that there is not a concern for chemical contamination, Rasp said. However, dissolved oxygen levels appear to have contributed to a fish kill. He did not say whether the hand sanitizer bottles or firefighting efforts contributed to the incident. 

How can you report a fish kill?

If residents spot a fish or wildlife kill caused by either a suspected pollution incident or a harmful algae bloom, they can call 512-389-4848 or contact a regional kills and spills team biologist. Tarrant County is located in Region 2, and a list of contacts can be found here.

“Additionally, TCEQ investigators conducted several on-site investigations to document the status of the response actions by the responsible party,” Rasp wrote. “TCEQ investigators are working with the responsible party and their contractor to ensure the impacted areas are remediated and the waste is disposed of at an appropriate facility.”

City staff are assisting with on-site investigations to document and verify the status of the contractor’s response, Rasp said. Chad Lorance, spokesperson for the Tarrant Regional Water District, confirmed that the water district is working with city officials to address the fallout from the fire. 

A spokesperson for Fort Worth’s code compliance department, which handles environmental investigations, did not respond to questions in time for publication. The TCEQ expects to produce at least one investigation report documenting how the property owner and city responded to the incident, Rasp said. 

How are companies, cities fined for fish kills?

When the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department can identify a responsible party for a fish kill, the department can seek compensation for loss of fish and wildlife resources as well as the costs associated with the investigation. 

That compensation could be obtained through civil restitution, which the department defines as “not a penalty or fine,” but the total calculated sum of the resources lost plus the investigation costs incurred by the department. 

The responsible party could also provide alternative projects to compensate for the loss of natural resources instead of restitution, according to the department’s website. For example, a company could put funding toward restoring the affected resources, scientific studies or education and outreach activities. 

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also issues fines to cities or counties when they occur as a result of a sanitary sewer overflow, or when raw sewage enters a water body during a storm or equipment malfunction. 

Reporter Izzy Acheson contributed reporting to this article.

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...