Today, a coalition of Gulf and environmental groups represented by Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over its proposal to dredge the Matagorda Bay shipping channel through an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site to vastly expand exports from an oil export terminal on the Texas Gulf Coast.
The project, which would deepen and widen 27 miles of the shipping channel from the Gulf of Mexico to the Seahawk Terminal in Point Comfort, Texas, threatens to stir up mercury from the Superfund site and imperils the livelihoods of local people working in the fishing, oyster, and shrimp industries. The project should not move forward without a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) from the Army Corps, the environmental groups argue. The project also jeopardizes climate goals by locking in new fossil fuel export infrastructure and a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions through 2070.
“Our fishing community has spent decades trying to recover from dangerous industrial waste dumped in the bay, and this project has the potential to upend all our hard work. Max Midstream will not make a profit at the expense of the bay and our health and livelihoods,” said Diane Wilson, fourth-generation shrimper and executive director of San Antonio Estuarine Bay Waterkeeper.
“The local fishing industry and our new coop we are trying to build will never recover from the abuse of Alcoa if this dredging project goes forward. Our lives, livelihoods, and hopes for a future are at stake,” said Mauricio Blanco, fisherman and member of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper and Texas Campaign for the Environment.
“If both the Army Corps and EPA want to ensure environmental justice is a focus under the Biden administration, it is imperative they fully evaluate the environmental impacts this project will have on Matagorda Bay and surrounding communities. We cannot allow another fossil fuel project to knowingly harm critical ecosystems, human health, and water recreation on the Texas coast,” said Chrystal Beasley, Texas Gulf Coast campaigner at Earthworks.
“This project poses major threats to communities, public health, and the environment, and it would lock us into decades of more dirty fossil fuel exports. The Army Corps must take this dangerous project back to the drawing board and consider all the risks,” said Erin Gaines, senior attorney at Earthjustice.
Since the Corps’ initial environmental review for the project in 2019, new information has come to light about the anticipated use of the shipping channel and the risks of increased greenhouse gas emissions, mercury contamination, and significant impacts on the lives and livelihoods of people working in the fishing industry. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Corps is required by law to conduct a SEIS to re-evaluate the project’s impacts on the environment and local communities.
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.
Earthjustice is also co-counsel with Environmental Integrity Project to represent San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper and Texas Campaign for the Environment in an appeal in state court in Texas filed earlier this month against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s decision to issue air permits for Max Midstream’s proposed terminal expansion project.
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 1 million barrels of oil, to pass into the Gulf of Mexico.
The project would also include dredging through an EPA Superfund site in a shipping channel contaminated with mercury by an 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 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.
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.
That survival could be jeopardized, however, by the dredging and the massive oil export terminal project, which would increase the risk of oil spills and dump 20 million cubic yards of dredging spoils in areas that are important aquatic and fisheries habitats.