Today, a coalition of Gulf and environmental groups represented by Earthjustice announced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has withdrawn approval to dredge the Matagorda Bay shipping channel through an EPA Superfund site, and committed to extensive additional environmental review, including a full Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (“SEIS”).
The Corps action comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the groups after new information came to light about the anticipated use of the shipping channel and the risks of mercury contamination, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and significant impacts on the lives and livelihoods of people working in the fishing industry.
Our fishing community will not stand by and let this toxic dredging project upend decades of hard work to bury industrial waste dumped in the bay,” said Diane Wilson, fourth-generation shrimper and executive director of San Antonio Estuarine Bay Waterkeeper. “We’re celebrating today but we know the fight isn’t over to protect our health and livelihoods from dirty fossil fuel companies trying to make a profit.”
“Matagorda Bay is in a state of an environmental emergency as a result of Alcoa’s industry practices which permanently depleted the life of the oyster population,” said Chrystal Beasley, Texas Gulf Coast campaigner at Earthworks. “Texas Gulf Coast residents deserve a full risk assessment that not only focuses on the environmental impacts but the human health risk and toxicity exposure through consumption of food.”
“The dredging project’s risks to human health, marine life, and the climate are significant and were not carefully considered in the Corps’ analysis,” said Lauren Fleer, Environmental Engineer at Environmental Integrity Project. “Dredging up a contaminated site to ship more oil overseas is simply not worth the risks to human health and the environment.”
The Corps agreed to go back to the drawing board and redo its environmental analysis of the dredging project. No work can continue until after a complete analysis of the project’s impact on public health, the surrounding ecosystem, and the damage the project would do to the local fishing economy. The extensive additional review will provide opportunities for public and expert input.
“The proposed dredge project for the Matagorda Bay system would have substantial negative environmental effects on the estuarine system including the resuspension of mercury, intensification of low dissolved oxygen levels, placement of dredge spoils potentially contaminated with mercury and clay, increased turbidity and salinity, and harm to sea grasses, oyster beds, fish, and sea turtles,” said Joanie Steinhaus, Gulf Program Director at the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “The EIS did not properly evaluate these potential impacts and I am thrilled to learn the Corps has decided to do a comprehensive environmental review of the Matagorda Bay Project.”
“The law requires agencies to fully understand and disclose the impacts of their actions. The federal proposal to dredge up a toxic waste site so that we can export more crude oil failed that test,” said Erin Gaines, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “We’re glad that the Corps has chosen to follow the law without further litigation, and we look forward to ensuring the full assessment properly considers the environmental, human health, and local economic impacts.”
The timeline for the revised SEIS has not been announced, but such processes can take years to complete. In addition to the revised SEIS, the Corps has committed to reinitiating federal consultation under the Endangered Species Act and performing a new analysis under the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit challenged the Corps’ compliance with all three statutes.
Plaintiffs San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, Earthworks, Environmental Integrity Project, Turtle Island Restoration Project, and Texas Campaign for the Environment are represented by lawyers Erin Gaines and Jan Hasselman of Earthjustice.
In 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to deepen and widen the Matagorda Bay shipping channel to allow for “Suezmax”-size oil tankers, which are as long as football fields and can carry about one million barrels of oil, to pass into the Gulf of Mexico.
The project would also include dredging through an EPA Superfund site located in a shipping channel contaminated with mercury by a now closed Alcoa aluminum smelting plant. The Army Corps performed an initial Environmental Impact Statement in 2019 for the dredging of the channel for a much smaller oil terminal project, but that did not capture the scale of the current proposal or include an examination of the most recent data on mercury contamination in the sediment.
Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project, and allies sent letters to the Army Corps in October and December 2021 and February 2022 requesting additional study of the possible impacts of the dredging project in a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. In the letters, expert reports supported the need for a re-evaluation of the risks from mercury contamination, including sediment sampling data which found mercury levels six times higher than EPA’s goal for the Superfund Site in the dredging area.
In May 2022, Earthjustice represented San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, Earthworks, Environmental Integrity Project, Turtle Island Restoration Project, and Texas Campaign for the Environment in filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over its proposal to dredge the Matagorda Bay shipping channel.
The project to dredge the Matagorda Bay shipping channel has faced strong community-led opposition since its proposal. Max Midstream, the company which hoped to profit from the dredging project to allow larger oil tankers to reach the company’s proposed oil export terminal, had previously stated it would pay for the entire federal dredging project. It has since had significant financial troubles and is facing legal challenges from community groups. In September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would delay seeking bids on the dredging project.
Since 1988, an area of Lavaca Bay has been closed to fishing because of high levels of mercury in finfish and crabs. Matagorda Bay and Port Lavaca, across the bay from Point Comfort, historically had a thriving fishing, shrimping, and oystering industry that has sharply declined in part due to industrial pollution. Despite the setbacks, the fishing community is fighting hard to survive. The dredging project would have increased greenhouse gas emissions, harmed public health, and dumped 20 million cubic yards of dredging spoils in areas that are important aquatic and fisheries habitats.