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Environmental groups raise alarms about the dredging of the Matagorda ship channel

Shrimp boat on Matagorda Bay
Brendan Gibbons
Environmental Integrity Project
Shrimp boat on Matagorda Bay

The proposed dredging of the Matagorda Ship Channel is raising alarms with environmental groups. The channel in Lavaca Bay near the towns of Port Lavaca and Port O'Connor lies in a mercury tainted Superfund cleanup site. A public comment period to the Army Corps of Engineers is closing next week. TPR's Jerry Clayton recently spoke with Brendan Gibbons, writer and editor at the Environmental Integrity Project, about the plan to dredge the channel.

Clayton: The Army Corps of Engineers was on track to begin widening this channel a while back. What happened?

Gibbons: Well, they faced a lot of opposition to this project. The plan was to dredge the ship channel through Matagorda Bay two and a half miles further into the Gulf, 300 feet wider at the entrance and about 10 feet deeper along parts of the channel. The people who are supportive of this project say that this was about making it more safe for all the vessels that are transiting this.

But since the beginning, groups like mine, Environmental Integrity Project, and some of our allies — including Earthworks, Earthjustice, the San Antonio Bay Waterkeeper — have known that this was really about making the channel more accessible to oil tankers. And we know that because the owner of an oil terminal that would be serviced by this ship channel, Max Midstream, has agreed to pay for 25% of the project cost, and it would allow more heavily laden oil tankers to get to their terminal.

So there was a lot of opposition back a couple of years ago, and a lawsuit actually filed from several environmental groups who were seeking more thorough studies about the impact of this dredging project to the bay. And back in December, the Corps of Engineers withdrew its letter saying that the project could go forward, and then it restarted again earlier this year when the Corps said it would conduct an additional study called the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

Clayton: A portion of this project sits in a Superfund cleanup site, is that correct?

Gibbons: That's right. And the Superfund program is the EPA's way of cleaning up heavily polluted sites across the country. And this site was an aluminum smelting and bauxite refinery owned by Alcoa. And back in the 60s and 70s, they were dumping a lot of their waste material into the bay. And after the passage of modern environmental laws, the EPA was able to get this site largely cleaned up and forced Alcoa to pay for it.

But there remains some sediment contaminated with mercury there in the bottom of the bay. But the concern is, is if they dredge through all of this stuff, it's going to stir all this mercury up into the water column, because this bay is such a prolific area for oyster fishing, fishing and shrimping.

Clayton: Your group and others are saying that the previous studies underestimated the damage that could be done by this project, is that right?

Gibbons: When the Corps of Engineers studied this project back in 2019 and the effect it could have on the ecosystem there, they had only estimated the project would damage 130 acres of oyster reefs. But there was the 2021 study by Texas A&M University's Harte Research Institute that found that the project had actually threatened 839 acres of oyster reefs compared to the 130 that the Corps of Engineers mentioned. And then it could also affect 1,017 acres of seagrass. And the Corps study didn't even estimate the project's effects on seagrass.

Clayton: There is a comment period. Tell me about that.

Gibbons: So right now, the public has an opportunity to weigh in [and] to ask the Corps of Engineers specifically what to study in the next environmental impact study, and that comment period for people to put in those requests to the Corps of Engineers ends on July 3. And so our group and several others are requesting a 60 day extension so that people actually have enough time to get the word out.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.