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A Superthreat to the Gulf Coast’s Lavaca Bay

A port’s dredging plans pose a man-made threat to a Texas Superfund site already hammered by hurricanes.

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Lavaca Bay, a steel, gray waterway along the Central Texas Coast, is home to one of the most notorious Superfund sites in Texas—a huge, abandoned industrial plant complex (and island full of dredge materials) that leaches toxic mercury into surrounding waters, creating a zone where, for decades, the fish has been too dangerous for humans to eat. 

The hulking complex near the town of Point Comfort is already one of about 49 Superfund sites in the United States considered the most vulnerable to climate change. Indeed, Lavaca Bay already has been repeatedly hammered by major storms, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Tropical Storm Beta in 2020. 

But the latest threat to unleash more mercury is entirely man-made. In January 2021, the Port Calhoun Authority voted to approve a public-private partnership with the Houston-based oil company Max Midstream to deepen and widen the bay’s existing shipping channel by 2023. Max Midstream is expected to invest $360 million in the project, including $120 million in public bond funds. The company, which acquired an existing pipeline that led to the port, has already begun shipping oil through it and plans to greatly increase its operations there. 

This plan could further stir up trouble in the still-scenic waterway, according to recent report issued by both university researchers and a consultant hired by environmental groups. 

New data released Wednesday by nonprofit environmental organizations shows that even after decades of capping pollutants and careful monitoring, many hotspots remain in the path of the proposed dredging sites that contain levels of mercury considered dangerous by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those hotspots show up in 2021 monitoring reports of mercury done by Alcoa, a company that owned a huge manufacturing plant there and is still held legally responsible for cleaning up piles of mercury as part of an EPA-approved Superfund plan. (A spokesman for Alcoa, the world’s sixth largest producer of aluminum, did not respond to an email request for comment.)

Mercury from the environment can build up in fish, and has been linked to reproductive problems as well as brain and heart damage in humans who consume contaminated fish. While mercury concentrations in the bay’s fish and shellfish have gone down in the decades since the Alcoa plant closed, the risk remains high enough that the waters around the Superfund site are still closed to fishing. The EPA’s strategy for cleaning up the site depends on mercury getting buried in sediment at the bottom of the bay. But now, that sediment might get dredged up again.

Lauren Fleer, a former engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who now works for the Environmental Integrity Project, one of the organizations backing the new report, is concerned that the proposed dredging could reverse what progress the EPA has made. 

“The entire basis of the remedy is that the contamination will stay buried,” she said.

The report says that the Port’s dredging plan could spread dangerous levels of mercury far beyond the Superfund monitoring area, increasing hazards and potential harms for people who try to catch and consume fish in neighboring waters. The dredging plan poses potential risks for more than one community on the Texas Coast: Lavaca Bay connects directly to the adjacent Matagorda and San Antonio Bays, which include some of Texas’ most popular and productive fishing grounds.

Diane Wilson—a fourth generation shrimper, longtime activist, and executive director of the San Antonio Estuary Waterkeeper—has spent years trying to advocate for more careful monitoring of the mercury and opposing plans that could disturb the contaminants, poison more fish and shellfish and adversely affect small communities around the bays.

“What the Corps, MaxMidstream, and the Calhoun Port authority are proposing by dredging the Matagorda Bay ship channel is a doomsday scenario; a future where the bay won’t be healed, the fisheries will die, and our fishing communities will become ghost towns,” said Wilson, who lives in the tiny bayfront town of Seadrift.

Wilson and an increasingly large group of activists are opposing the port’s application for a dredging permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and calling for more consideration of the potential environmental damage it could unleash. The permit remains under review by the Corps, the agency that oversees dredging projects in coastal waters nationwide.

“For the Army Corps to be able to say whether the proposed project poses a threat to wildlife within the bay and potentially to human health, you’ve got to collect the data,” said Jessica Dutton, a biologist at Texas State University who conducted the new report supporting Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project’s call for additional review. “At the moment, we don’t have that data,” she explained.

Jim Blackburn, a Houston-based environmental attorney who serves as president of the Matagorda Bay Foundation, one of the groups that opposes the dredging, said the current plan flatly makes no sense and he hopes the Corps will deny the permit. 

“We’re talking about threatening the seafood production from an entire bay system for the benefit of that one company,” he said. “We’ve got to stop bending over backwards for one hydrocarbon project where that’s not where we want to put that kind of attention.”

Blackburn said new report echos warnings in a previous report authored by researchers at the Harte Institute of Research that also found that the Port of Calhoun’s dredging plans for their MaxMidstream partnership would not protect the surrounding waterways from the risk of spreading the toxic mercury pollution in the sediments—or from disposal of contaminated spoils that would excavated during the project. Ironically, the previous study was paid for out of a fund created in 2021 as part of a settlement of a lawsuit that Wilson and others filed against Formosa, another company that has been fined and sued for its own pollution—dumping plastic pellets for years in the waters of Lavaca Bay.

Both reports bolster the positions of a growing number of fishing and environmental groups along the coast that are opposing the dredging permit.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote in a statement that the project is now in the pre-construction and design phase, and the deadline for public comments has passed. 

“The concerns over the potential for mercury contamination in sediments – as expressed in the Earth Justice report sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – was previously captured in the environmental review that culminated in the Matagorda Ship Channel Final Environmental Impact Statement and Chief’s Report signed on 15 November 2019. Consistent with the requirements of the FEIS, a sediment testing plan was developed and coordinated with the EPA to be then executed with our non-federal partner… All final designs and construction activities will remain fully NEPA compliant, guided by the laws, statutes and authorities granted to the Corps of Engineers,” the statement said.

The spokesperson also said that the Corps would continue to partner with the EPA and other government agencies to ensure the project complies with all laws and regulations.

Aside from the mercury risk, there’s also the project’s likely end effect of increasing Texas’ oil production by expanding the state’s export capacity. 

“They’re planning a project to export fossil fuels for 50 more years,” Fleer said. The Corps should consider the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions from the project into its review, she added.

The Port of Calhoun did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor did the spokesperson for Max Midstream.

As an attorney, Blackburn has a long history of suing polluters to try to protect Texas waterways. He said the small port’s previous dredging proposals were better—and its latest proposal “has a much lower level of protection.” But at this point, he questions why the port would take such a huge environmental gamble at all. 

“The first question is why are we doing this? And do we really need to do this? What worries me is this is kind of the last gasp of somebody trying to make money off of oil and gas —and do something that’s poorly conceived,” Blackburn said.