Judge Sides with Port Aransas Residents, Halts Barge Facility in ‘Environmentally Sensitive’ Area

Judge Janis Graham Jack wrote that the injunction was in part to prevent a “bureaucratic steamroller effect.”

A barging facility operating without a permit in an environmentally sensitive part of the Texas coast has been ordered to stop by a federal judge in Corpus Christi. The ruling is a major victory for Port Aransas residents, who sued the company for parking barges carrying petrochemicals in a part of the coast frequented by endangered species.

In January, the Observer reported that Friends of Lydia Ann Channel, a nonprofit formed by Port Aransas residents, had sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for issuing a permit for the facility without notifying the public or conducting an environmental review. The Army Corps had relied, in part, on assertions made by Everett Michael Skipper, a businessman who often used an alias — his DJ name — in his dealings and who pleaded guilty to a second-degree felony for bribing a Corpus Christi official in 2009.

In their lawsuit, the Port Aransas residents raised questions about how Skipper had convinced a $5 billion federal agency to fast-track the permit. As a result, the Army Corps revoked the permit in September and the fleeting company, Lydia Ann Channel Moorings LLC, defaulted on its lease with the Texas General Land Office. But the company continued to operate its facility for the last five months.

The injunction puts a stop to that. In a 24-page order, Judge Janis Graham Jack, a Clinton appointee, said it was “unacceptable” that the company continued operating in an “environmentally sensitive” area after its permit had been revoked “without any sort of consequence.”

To grant a preliminary injunction, a court assesses whether four factors have been met, including whether the plaintiffs are likely to win and whether there is a threat of irreparable harm if the injunction isn’t granted.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting  National Park Service

In this case, Jack found that all criteria were met. Because the Lydia Ann Channel hosts endangered species, including the green sea turtle and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, there was a reasonable chance that those species could be harmed by the barging facility, she wrote.

An attorney for the Port Aransas residents and a representative for Lydia Ann Channel Moorings LLC did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The company sought a stay on the injunction from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which was denied this week. 

In its filings with the court, Lydia Ann Channel Moorings LLC stated that blocking the injunction would “save [the company] from closing its doors and save 29 people from losing their jobs” and “would be better for the sea turtles” because the company’s “turtle monitors will monitor for turtles.”

Jack also noted that the injunction was necessary because the company had continued to operate despite losing its permit and defaulting on its lease. After Lydia Ann Channel Moorings’ permit had been revoked, the Army Corps claimed it didn’t have the authority to stop the facility from operating. Since then, the company has reapplied for a permit with the Army Corps and the agency is reviewing the company’s plan to remove the facility and restore the area.

A crane lowers a metal piling to be used to tie off barges in the Lydia Ann Channel.  Via Texas General Land Office

“The Court finds allowing the facility to continue operation during the review process would result in the increased difficulty of stopping the operation at a later time,” she noted. Jack has also put a freeze on the case while the Army Corps reviews the company’s restoration plan.

In March, Lydia Ann Channel Moorings sued the Friends of Lydia Ann Channel, Aldo Dyer, a spokesperson for the group, as well as the Observer and this staff writer. The company claims that the article the Observer published about the barge fleeting facility is “defamatory and libelous” and is seeking damages. The case is pending before an Aransas County district court. The Observer stands by its reporting and will mount a vigorous defense.

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Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering the environment, energy and climate change at Grist. She previously covered environmental issues at the Texas Observer, InsideClimate News and ProPublica. At ProPublica, she was part of a team that reported on the water woes of the West, a project that was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University and was a 2017 Ida B. Wells fellow at Type Investigations. You can contact her at [email protected] and follow her work on Twitter.

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