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Environmental groups suing Army Corps of Engineers over dredging a Superfund site for Matagorda Bay ship channel expansion

Lawsuit challenges NEPA review of Texas oil shipping project

By Niina H. Farah 05/26/2022 07:18 AM EDT

Environmental groups announced yesterday that they are suing to block the Army Corps of Engineers from allowing dredging through a Superfund site to expand the Matagorda Bay shipping channel on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The project, which would allow increased oil exports from the Seahawk Terminal in Point Comfort, risks disturbing sediment contaminated by mercury from EPA’s Alcoa Point Comfort/Lavaca Bay Superfund site, according to the environmental coalition led by the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper.

Army Corps officials’ 2019 National Environmental Policy Act analysis of the project “ignored entire categories of environmental concerns and failed to disclose the full range of harms and risks,” the groups wrote in their complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The possibility of contamination of local seafood — or even the perception of a health risk — could endanger the livelihoods of people in the fishing, oyster and shrimp industries, the groups said.

“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,” Diane Wilson, a shrimper and executive director of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, said in a statement.

The project also risks “locking in” new fossil fuel infrastructure as the country must swiftly respond to climate change, the challengers added.

Plans for the expanded channel had prompted Max Midstream LLC to develop the Seahawk Terminal, a crude oil transport facility. New access to crude oil could lead to increased consumption and higher emissions, the groups argued.

The environmental groups are also asking for a judge to require the Army Corps to complete a supplemental analysis of dredging risks.

Expanding the channel would involve digging up 21 million cubic yards of sediment — including 2.5 million cubic yards within the Superfund site — over a four-year period. That sediment would then be placed either in the Gulf of Mexico, in other portions of Matagorda Bay or other areas southwest of the channel, according to the lawsuit.

In its 2019 environmental impact statement, the Army Corps said that expansion of the shipping channel wouldn’t involve dredging in the areas with the highest mercury contamination, but the agency said that “there will be some amount of resuspension of sediment associated with the construction dredging process, and there is some concentration of mercury in sediments.”

Those disruptions wouldn’t significantly affect ambient or sediment mercury concentrations, the agency said in its NEPA review.

But the environmental groups cited a study last year from the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi that found a “high” risk of mobilization of mercury from dredging in Lavaca Bay.

The Army Corps does not comment on pending litigation.