Local advocates asked a key federal official Friday to conduct another study of the planned $1-billion expansion of the Matagorda ship channel after a review by researchers at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi found the Army Corps of Engineers underestimated the project’s potential environmental impact.
A co-author of the study, Paul Montagna, said his team’s findings indicate the environmental impacts of the ship channel’s planned expansion could be more widespread than previously thought, including the potential destruction of 1,800 acres of oyster beds and seagrass habitats and the possible release of mercury into local bay systems.
In response, the Port of Calhoun’s director, Charles Hausmann, defended what he said has been a “painstaking” seven-year-long review process.
Hausmann also touted the economic benefits of Max Midstream’s plans to transform the port into a major oil export center, which he said would be “one of the greatest economic developments to ever occur in our region” and a massive job creator.
The ship channel’s expansion includes adding a new 1,200-foot turning basin in Lavaca Bay to accommodate larger vessels, extending the entrance channel by 13,000 feet, deepening the entrance and bay-side channels by 9 feet and widening the bottom width of the bay channel by 100 feet and the bottom width of the entrance channel by 250 feet.
This would require the dredging of 21 million cubic yards of sediment, 18 million cubic yards of which could be repurposed, a Corps engineer said at a public meeting in March.
The port’s expansion, which the federal government authorized as part of the Water Resources Development Act in 2020, would allow larger vessels, such as Aframax and Suezmax ships, to come to the port and expand the port’s potential imports and exports to “everything from animal feed products to agriculture products to construction material to energy products,” Hausmann said.
In July, the Matagorda Bay Mitigation Trust awarded a $110,000 grant to researchers at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, led by Montagna and James Gibeault, to conduct an independent review of an environmental impact statement published by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2019. The researchers published their evaluation in late September.
Montagna said in an interview that the review’s findings contrasted with the Corps’ findings in a couple of important ways.
By overlaying a map of the project’s footprint with state and federal data on local marine habitats, the researchers determined that the proposed dredging and placement of dredged material would destroy about 800 acres of oyster beds and about 1,000 acres of seagrass habitats.
The Corps previously said the project would destroy just 130 acres of oyster beds, which they planned to mitigate by building additional habitat.
Bill Balboa, executive director of the Matagorda Bay Foundation, said he is especially concerned about the potential placement of dredged materials along the ship channel’s western edge. Prevailing southeasterly winds could blow those materials into coastal habitats, he said.
“The bays, they don’t just feed us — they clean the air, they help clean the water and they protect the shorelines. They aren’t something that you can easily get a dollar value from,” he said. “You look at all the habitats on the Texas coast — oysters, seagrasses and wetlands — there could be potential impacts to all three of those.”
Montagna’s other primary concern has to do with mercury.
In their 2019 report, the Corps said the bay’s water quality “should not be negatively impacted” by dredging, despite concerns over high mercury levels in sediment resulting from the now-shuttered Alcoa aluminum refinery. That refinery discharged inorganic mercury-laden wastewater into Lavaca Bay from 1965 to 1981, leading the area to be declared a Superfund site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Montagna said his team disputes the Corps’ findings that the likelihood of reintroducing mercury into the bay system is low, for two reasons: The dredging of the turning basin would take place close to Alcoa’s historic mercury discharge site, and mercury concentrations likely remain high in sediment layers not far below the bay bottom.
“It would be a shame if we ended up mobilizing buried mercury and the concentration of mercury in fish ends up going back up, but I think that’s a distinct possibility,” Montagna said.
But Hausmann said the Corps’ ongoing engineering and design process includes sampling for contaminants like mercury. In addition, Alcoa is required to accept and dispose of any mercury-contaminated sediment found on port property in accordance with a 2002 settlement, according to the Corps’ 2019 statement.
“Any samples that test above federally-mandated levels of contaminants will be addressed by having those materials placed into a confined placement area and taken out of the bay entirely,” Hausmann said.
Following the release of the Harte Institute study, two attorneys with the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice sent a letter to Corps officials on behalf of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper asking the Corps to conduct a “supplemental environmental impact statement” to further analyze the project’s environmental impact.
One of those attorneys, Erin Gaines, who also worked with local advocates on previous litigation against Formosa Plastics Corp., said she is concerned that the sediment sampling the Corps plans to conduct as part of its engineering and design phase will be insufficient.
“We need to know the mercury levels in the sediments that will be dredged to be able to properly evaluate the impacts to human health and the environment,” she said. “The sampling plans that they’ve put out for bid (are) not going to tell us that.”
In their letter, the attorneys also say the Corps did not account for the vast increase in crude oil exports that is likely as a result of the Max Midstream project, which will eventually allow up to 20 million barrels to be shipped out of the port every month, when analyzing the likely environmental impacts of the ship channel, including increased ship traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, port officials last week announced a plan to make the port’s expansion “carbon neutral.” Hausmann said the port is still in the planning process but intends to talk to environmental experts about strategies the port could adopt to offset its carbon output, such as investing in renewables.
Fishermen are among those with a direct stake in the health of local bays.
Gaines said she is concerned about the project’s impact on the families of fishermen in the Seadrift, Port O’Connor and Port Lavaca areas, many of whom have been struggling due to market fluctuations and long-term trends. Some of those fishermen have been considering forming a co-op in an effort to rebuild the local seafood industry.
Expanding the ship channel, Gaines said, could be a “threat to the rebuilding of fisheries in this region, and people who recreate there and use the bays and live nearby.”
Some of those fishermen, including longtime Seadrift environmental activist Diane Wilson, who has repeatedly protested the ship channel proposal, including a 36-day hunger strike this spring, met with Jaime Pinkham, acting assistant secretary for the Army for Civil Works, on Friday to present their case for an additional environmental study.
Such a study would likely take “at least many months, if not longer” to complete, Gaines said.
“Mr. Pinkham acted very interested in it,” Wilson said Friday. “He said it was towards the top of his list and that he was calling some key federal agencies to talk about it.”
But Hausmann said local officials have already worked with state and federal officials to address environmental concerns “at every stage of this process.”
“Any request for an additional review flies in the face of the enormous research and review that has already been done and indicates that the goal of the small minority of opponents of this project is to stop progress and stop new jobs in the region,” he said.