HALLETTSVILLE – Like others on Saturday, Savannah Neece arrived with one thing in mind, a certain Czech sweet pastry. As organizers began setting a table for a kolache eating contest, however, the 10-year-old set her sights on the gold.
At the shout of “Go!” and facing three other contestants in the 5-10-year-old bracket, Savannah, of Hallettsville, quickly dispatched two kolaches in just over a minute, taking only a few sips of water in between bites.
The crowd erupted into cheers, whistles and praises as she rang a bell, signalling she was done.
“She is quick,” said Janet Spies, vice president of the Hallettsville Chamber of Commerce, which organized the event. “She really flew past the boys.”
Savannah was cheered on by hundreds of people who came to Hallettsville on Saturday for the city’s annual Kolache Fest, an event offering the chance to dance, shop, play and eat kolaches while celebrating the area’s rich Czech and German heritage.
For the uninitiated, kolaches are sweet pastries with a fruity filling in the middle with added sugar on top. Kountry Bakery, a local Hallettsville bakery that’s served the community since 1979, provided thousands of the festival’s namesake pastries.
The event attracts people from Hallettsville and all over Texas. Some, like Erik and Laurie McCowan, have come to the event multiple times, traveling from their hometown of Rosanky.
“It is always a good time,” said Erik McCowan. His son, Colton Hancock, finished second in the competition.
“I tried to eat too much at first, and it slowed me down,” said Colton, 10. “It was good though.”
Spies said this year’s turnout was more than expected.
“We’ve seen a ton of people come in,” she said as she set up for another round of the eating contest. “Part of it is the sweets, yes, but people are itching to get out of their homes and have fun.”
The event’s kolache eating contest won by Savannah was one of the main events, which was followed by a car show, live music and more. More than a dozen participated to see how quickly they could eat the pastries.
Some, like Cody Kremling, leisurely ate and still end up winning in their bracket. As he finished his third kolache in the final contest, he intentionally took a few seconds to slowly ring his bell, seemingly boasting that he had finished. The other competitors were completely surprised he was already done.
“I was struggling at first but I discovered the secret in the middle of the first kolache. It is water,” said Kremling, a 28-year-old Weimar resident, with a smile. “It was over for them after that.”
Some of his competitors were still finishing their first one when the race was over.
“You don’t have to eat them all. And you also just enjoy your kolache,” said Spies. “There is always next year to get quicker.”
If you’ve frequented popular fish cleaning stations in Calhoun County in recent weeks, there is a good chance you were approached by friendly researchers asking to sample your catch.
The researchers are part of Jessica Dutton’s team and don’t need the whole fish, just a small muscle sample that will be analyzed for mercury and selenium.
“It is about a 1 to 2 gram muscle plug that is taken right behind the back of the head of the fish,” said Dutton, an assistant professor in the biology department at Texas State University, whose students have collected more than 350 samples from different species.
The sampling and analysis are part of a multiyear study to examine the presence of, and relationship between, mercury and plastics in the fisheries of Lavaca, Matagorda and San Antonio bays.
Dutton and Jeremy Conkle, an assistant professor of chemistry at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, are co-lead investigators on the project, which was awarded funding last year by the Matagorda Bay Mitigation Trust.
The research stems from analyses conducted during a lawsuit that Seadrift environmental activist Diane Wilson and the San Antonio Bay Waterkeeper brought against Formosa Plastics Texas in 2018. The lawsuit was settled after a federal judge found that Formosa violated the Clean Water Act by polluting waters with plastic pellets and powders released from its Point Comfort facility.
A $110,000 grant was recently awarded to researchers for an independent review of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plans to widen and deepen the Matagorda Ship Channel — a project that has triggered environmental and economic concerns among many local residents.
Low concentrations of mercury were discovered on plastic pellets that Conkle sent to Dutton’s lab for analysis during the lawsuit, and the researchers said they began to wonder whether plastics were serving as a vehicle to spread mercury around the bay system.
“The concentrations were below any of the EU (European Union) mercury limits in toys so it is not necessarily a human health concern, but if you have a lot of this material absorbing mercury and transporting it around the bay system, maybe that is a large amount,” Conkle said. “We just don’t know and maybe that is what some of this work will help to figure out.”
People are most commonly exposed to methylmercury through consumption of fish and shellfish that have high levels of the element in their tissues.
Almost all people have at least a small amount of methylmercury in their bodies, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that most people have blood mercury levels below those associated with possible health effects.
But methylmercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause adverse health effects at high levels of exposure, such as lost of peripheral vision, tingling sensations, loss of coordination, muscle weakness and impairment of speech, hearing or walking, according to the EPA.
The Matagorda Bay system presents a unique opportunity to study mercury and plastics’ impact on fisheries because of its history of contamination, Dutton said.
The Environmental Protection Agency designated portions of Lavaca Bay as a Superfund site in 1994, decades after the now shuttered Alcoa aluminum refinery discharged inorganic mercury-laden wastewater into the bay from 1965 to 1981.
A portion of the Superfund site remains closed to fishing and crabbing due to levels of mercury that exceed the Texas Department of State Health Services’ levels of what is acceptable for human consumption.
In addition to known mercury contamination, there is also the known plastic contamination from Formosa.
“We have a system that is heavily contaminated from two different contaminants,” Dutton said. “If we don’t see that there is an issue with regard to the interaction between the two and with plastic being a vector for mercury in this system, then moving forward and looking at other bay systems, it may not be so much of a problem because we’ve got an extreme situation here in comparison to other systems.”
Dutton’s students are in the process of collecting samples from several fish species, including red and black drum, spotted seatrout, flounder, sheepshead and gafftopsail catfish. Samples from shellfish species, including blue crab, eastern oyster and brown and white shrimp will also be collected for analysis.
In addition to mercury, those samples will be analyzed for selenium because although states issue fish consumption advisories based solely on mercury concentrations, there is evidence that selenium co-occurring with mercury can mitigate its toxicity, Dutton said.
Dutton will also oversee lab experiments with fresh or virgin plastics and plastics coated in biofilm to examine how different characteristics influence mercury binging to plastics, such as salinity and temperature.
“Even though the lab experiments we’ll do won’t necessarily be representative of natural conditions because we’ll just be altering one variable, at least we’ll be able to tease apart what factors affect mercury binding to plastic,” she said.
Conkle’s team is heavily focused on plastic debris in the bay system, and how mercury concentrations differ in plastics of different types, ages and locations, he said.
His students have already started sampling beach sediment for plastics that will be analyzed for mercury. Next year, he plans to deploy different plastic materials in the bay system to study how variables affect the relationship between the mercury and the plastics, he said.
“We’ll be able to dig into where there could be problems or where you might want to look for problems, so it helps to kind of guide future research in those areas if there are plastics and known mercury, like maybe you want to watch this specific kind of plastic more closely or control more closely under these conditions,” Conkle said.
One of the concerns locals and environmental organizations have voiced with the expansion project is the possibility of the dredging displacing mercury in Lavaca Bay’s sediment.
If the ship channel is widened and deepened, Dutton said one of the benefits of her and Conkle’s study is that they will have baseline mercury concentrations for a variety of species for future research on possible impacts.
“We’re going to have mercury concentrations for a range of species that live within the bay pre-dredging so we can actually use that as baseline data,” she said. “Hopefully, if it (the ship channel expansion project) does go ahead, future funding can be secured to see how that changes during the dredging process and years that follow to see if there actually has been an impact within the food web.”
With the beginning of flu season approaching, the Victoria County Public Health Department is hosting its first two vaccination clinics this week.
The clinics will be from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday at the Dr. Pattie Dodson Public Health Center, 2805 N. Navarro St., Suite 102. Starting the following week, clinics will be held on a regular basis on Tuesday and Thursday mornings as well as from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday afternoons.
Flu shots are recommended by the Texas Department of State Health Services for anyone 6 months and older, especially for pregnant women, adults age 65 and older, children up to 5 years old and people with chronic health conditions.
“Once we go into the fall and winter months, we definitely see the increase in flu and other respiratory illnesses in our area,” said David Gonzales, director of the Victoria County Public Health Department. “It’s one of those things that’s especially important for those with existing health conditions.”
The Victoria Fire Department, which hosted flu vaccine clinics for low-income and homeless residents last year, is planning to give out flu shots again this year — and this time, any county resident is eligible, Fire Chief Tracy Fox said.
The department expects to receive about 120 vaccines through a grant from the Texas Medical Association and intends to hold clinics for the public in mid- to late-October.
Flu season typically begins in October, peaks from December through February and ends in May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reported flu cases were drastically reduced during the 2020-21 flu season, which epidemiologists say is likely because of public health precautions taken in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
But Gonzales said it’s possible the county will see more flu cases during this coming season.
“I think this year’s a little different than last year at this time,” he said. “There could be a little bit of an increase from last year — I hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”
At the Public Health Department’s clinics, vaccines will cost $35 for a regular dose and $65 for a higher dose, which is recommended for those age 65 and older.
Those with Medicare and Medicaid will be reimbursed.
The flu shot will also be available at most places where COVID-19 vaccines can be obtained, including pharmacies and doctor’s offices, Gonzales said, although several local pharmacies contacted by the Advocate, including Harding & Parker Drug Store, Central Drug and Rogers Pharmacy, said they either are not offering flu shots this year or are still awaiting shipments of the vaccine.
Both pharmacy chains say the cost of the shot is covered by most private insurance plans.