Calhoun Port Authority

A Panamax cargo vessel sits at the Calhoun Port Authority in Point Comfort.

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.

Researchers Paul Montagna and James Gibeaut of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University — Corpus Christi were awarded the funds by the Matagorda Bay Mitigation Trust to reassess the environmental footprint of the multimillion dollar project.

The Matagorda Bay Mitigation Trust was established as part of a $50 million federal Clean Water Act settlement between Formosa Plastics Corp., Texas and the San Antonio Bay Waterkeeper and Diane Wilson.

Montagna said he first reviewed the the Corps’ final Feasibility Report and Impact Statement for the project after Formosa personnel reached out to ask him whether he had any concerns with the plans.

Upon reviewing the report, he found the environmental impact assessment to be “weak” and worthy of independent study, he said.

“I can’t help but feel like the Army Corps set themselves up for controversy,” Montagna said. “There is no real text or background or explanation of the potential things that could go wrong and why they won’t go wrong. To me, it was sort of stunning to read some of these things.”

He and Gibeaut will utilize existing scientific literature, data and information to complete physical and ecological environmental assessments of the project’s impacts on seagrass and oyster habitat, bay circulation, salinity, groundwater, turbidity, proposed dredge spoil placement and mercury contamination.

“One of the big concerns we’ve seen here with maintenance dredging in the Corpus Christ is storm surge. Does this provide an easier way for tidal waters to surge in during a hurricane? We’ll also be looking at that,” Montagna said

The study is expected to be completed at the end of September and will be made publicly available, said Steven Raabe, trustee for the Matagorda Bay Mitigation Trust.

That would leave about a two-month window before the December deadline that the Corps and Calhoun Port Authority have set for the pre-construction design and engineering phase of the project.

“It may well be that we will come to the exact same conclusion (as the Corps) … but I think the point is that if we do come to the same conclusion, the people who live there would feel more comfortable and maybe not feel like they have to worry about this because we’re independent,” Montagna said. “I don’t have a dog in the fight.”

Funded through a public-private partnership between Max Midstream Texas and the Calhoun Port Authority, the ship channel expansion project was federally authorized in 2020. Pre-construction design and engineering has to be completed before the bidding process for construction can began.

In recent months, Wilson, a Seadrift environmental activist, commercial fishermen and members of the Matagorda Bay Foundation and Lavaca Bay Foundation have vocalized concerns with findings in the Corps’ report and with the speed at which the project is being pursued.

“I was really glad to hear about what the researchers are doing and some of the things they are reevaluating,” Wilson said. “I’m definitely waiting to see the report. I’m watching very carefully, and I’m waiting with some lawyers and some concerned citizens.”

The longtime environmental activist protested against the dredging project by going on a hunger strike and staging several demonstrations, including one in front of the Corps’ Galveston offices where she was arrested for obstructing a highway or passageway.

“We have got a tremendous amount of concern,” she said. “And so far the response from the Corps has been absolutely nothing.”

A major fear is that the Corps’ plans will result in greater environmental impacts than disclosed, as detailed in a 17-page letter that the Matagorda Bay and Lavaca Bay foundations sent to the Corps’ Galveston District commander in April.

That letter included requests for a supplemental environmental impact study. As of Friday, the Corps had not responded to it nor responded to a second letter that environmental attorney Jim Blackburn sent on Tuesday.

Blackburn serves on the Matagorda Bay Foundation’s board of directors. He sent the second letter to notify the Corps of the study and urge them to work with the researchers and utilize their findings.

“If the Corps were willing to abide by the results of this study, we would also be willing to abide by these results,” he wrote in the letter. “Otherwise, it appears inevitable that we are headed for federal court, and neither of us should desire such an outcome.”

The Matagorda Bay Foundation is willing to consider the study as a form of dispute resolution, which would create an opportunity to circumvent federal litigation and responsibly resolve community concerns, Blackburn said.

“I’ve made my career litigating on the coast, and there has got to be a better way to resolve disputes than going to court every time we disagree,” he said. “Whether we can take advantage of it and whether the Corps will be willing to work with us on it are issues that remain to be seen, but the opportunity here is tremendous.”

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Kali Venable is an investigative and environmental reporter for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6558 or at kvenable@vicad.com.

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Investigative & Environmental Reporter

I was born and raised in Houston, but spent many summers and weekends in the Crossroads while growing up. I studied journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and feel lucky to cover a region I love dearly.

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