‘Suezmax’ Oil Tankers Could Soon Be Plying the Poisoned Waters of Texas’ Lavaca Bay

Fishermen and environmentalists say a plan to export crude would require dredging mercury-laced sediment in a Superfund site, imperling oyster reefs and the natural habitat.

Birds nest on an island in Lavaca Bay, close to Dredge Island and its mercury contamination. Credit: Spike Johnson

Birds nest on an island in Lavaca Bay, close to Dredge Island and its mercury contamination. Credit: Spike Johnson

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On a cloudy morning in early May, Diane Wilson lowered herself into a coffin in a boat on the trailer she’d parked to block the entrance to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Galveston, Texas.  

A retired shrimper and headstrong environmental activist, Wilson, 72, was flanked by a pair of fellow septuagenarians who unfurled a banner that read, “Kill a bay. Kill the fisherman. Kill a Community.” 

It didn’t take long for the police to arrive.

Wilson and company were protesting an Army Corps’ project, authorized by Congress in December, to dredge the Matagorda Ship Channel, midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi, so that Suezmax ships—also known as VLCCs, short for Very Large Crude Carrier—could export oil from Texas via Port Calhoun, a sleepy provincial terminal slated for $1 billion in improvements.

Environmentalists say it is unconscionable for Congress and the Army Corps to be  backing Houston-based Max Midstream’s oil export plans when climate change is threatening the planet and the Biden administration has proposed reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030.

A 2020 report by Greenpeace and Oil Change International estimates that U.S. oil exports have increased by 750 percent since the export ban was lifted in 2015, peaking at approximately 3.4 million barrels per day in 2019. As of October 2019, 24 percent of all crude extracted in the United States was exported.

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But that is only half the outrage for Wilson and the “fisher folk” of Calhoun County, mostly Vietnamese, Hispanic and working-class white shrimpers, oystermen and crabbers. The dredging would also roil mercury-laced sediment in one of the nation’s largest, most beautiful and toxic Superfund sites, Lavaca Bay, poisoned by a now-idled Alcoa aluminum refinery that spewed an estimated 1.2 million pounds of mercury into its azure waters from 1966 to 1979. 

“I’ve been a long-time shrimper. I know exactly what dredging material does,” Wilson said. “Once I had a set of crab traps not too far from a small-scale dredging operation. And it killed every single crab and fish there. And here we’re talking about dredging material contaminated with mercury and methylmercury from Alcoa refinery.”

Ethan Buckner, manager of the nonprofit Earth Works’ Infrastructure and Petrochemicals Campaign, said the dredging project “has come in and essentially glossed over the tremendous dangers posed by dredging through a mercury-contaminated Superfund site. It’s really disturbing how quickly this project is advancing.”

But why it is advancing at all, he said, is impossible to fathom. “The U.S. shouldn’t be exporting crude. It’s contradictory to the administration’s commitment to tackle environmental racism and climate change to essentially sacrifice the health and well-being of Gulf Coast communities,” he said. 

‘It’s Personal for Me’

The Calhoun Port Authority took the lead in steering what is officially titled the Matagorda Ship Channel Improvement Project (MSCIP) for over a decade. The project includes carving out a new 1,200-foot turning basin in Lavaca Bay and widening the entrance to the channel by 13,000 feet, in addition to deepening the entrance and bay-side channels by 9 feet. The bottom widths will also be extended—by 100 feet in the bay channel and 250 feet in the entrance channel.

This deepening and widening of the bay channel and the offshore channel is meant to allow Suezmax or Aframax-class ships to access the port. An estimated 21 million cubic yards of sediment will be dredged in the process, which will need relocation and reutilization. The project is currently in the pre-construction design and engineering phase following the Congressional authorization. 

The port authority’s partner, Max Midstream, views the port as a midway option between Houston and Corpus Christi, with light ship traffic, and plans to develop it as a major export hub focused on crude shipments to Europe. It boasts “a firm partnership with the Port of Calhoun” and has pledged $360 million for dredging and widening the Matagorda Ship Channel as part of the agreement. 

Max Midstream did not respond to a request for comment. 

Wilson worries about Lavaca Bay and all the dredging that will be required in the Superfund site. “Main point is that the process of dredging will resuspend mercury-contaminated sediments and will smother 700 acres of oysters reefs, which is the only source of living for the local fishing communities,” she said. 

The dredging would also bring more salt water into the bay and threaten the reefs through increased salinity, she said. “So, it was those three things about the dredging: the mercury, the burying of oyster reefs in mud, and the salinity rushing in.”

Thirty five days before she towed her boat to Galveston for the protest outside the Army Corps’ offices, Wilson began a hunger strike in her quest to stop the dredging. She would leave her house around 8:30 am, drive her 1995 red Chevy to the Lavaca Bay waterfront, set up folding chairs, and unfurl her hand-painted banners screaming, “STOP THE DREDGING” and “STOP OIL EXPORT.” 

From her perch, she could see the abandoned Alcoa aluminum plant rusting away, and next to it, Formosa Plastics Corp.’s industrial estate. Wilson won a $50 million settlement against Formosa in October 2019 for dumping thousands of plastic pellets in Lavaca Bay and nearby waterways. It’s the largest settlement in U.S. history involving a citizen complaint against an industrial polluter under the Clean Water Act. 

Texas Dredging Project Stirs Up Concerns

Of the $50 million Formosa settlement, to be paid out over five years, $20 million was earmarked for creating a cooperative to develop sustainable fishing, shrimping and oyster harvesting, and revitalize depleted marine ecosystems that had been hit by years of contamination. 

“We have worked for the last one year setting up a fisheries cooperative to help the local fishing communities,” Wilson said. “Dredging will ruin our year-long effort to revive the local fishing industry. So, it’s personal for me.”  

The commercial fishing industry in Lavaca Bay, once thriving, has struggled to make a comeback after the devastation of mercury contamination from the Alcoa superfund site and, later, the plastics pollution from Formosa.

José Martinez, 65, said he has been shrimping in Lavaca and Matagorda Bays since 1984, when he settled in Wilson’s hometown of Seadrift, Texas, with his wife and three kids. Originally from Mexico, Martinez said Port Lavaca was full of shrimp and oysters back then.

“But there’s been fewer catches every year since the last 10 years because of the chemicals Formosa released in bay waters,” he said. “Now we have to go to the ship channel to catch the shrimp in deep waters because there’s very little left elsewhere.”

Martinez said there are about 200 families of fisher folk in Seadrift, Port O’ Connor and Port Lavaca who depend on oysters and shrimp for their livelihood. “We sell our catch to the local buyers, who don’t pay enough, and whatever is left from the day’s netting we sell it on the roadside because we cannot store it,” he said.

Having to provide for an extended family with 10 grandchildren, Martinez said he is concerned about the dredging of the Matagorda Ship Channel.

“It’s not going to be good for our business because they are going to cover the reefs with mud and I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said. “When they start digging, it will bring out the mercury, which is not going to be good for the fish and shrimp. Everyone’s got a family and it’s going to affect a lot of people.” 

Pausing for words, Martinez said he didn’t know what it would take to put a stop to the project. “It’s a big company with a lot of money,” he said. “And we don’t have such money.”      

‘Working As Fast As We Can’

Since 2019, Max Midstream energy company has moved aggressively to acquire terminal and pipeline assets to connect the Port of Calhoun to the Eagle Ford Shale and Permian Basin—Texas’ two major shale oil fields. New pipelines are projected to transport up to 20 million barrels a month to the revitalized terminal at the port. 

Last October, in announcing a public-private partnership with Max Midstream, Charles Hausmann, Calhoun Port Authority director, said the company would invest $360 million in port infrastructure improvements, including $225 million for the Matagorda Ship Channel Improvement Project. Overall, Max Midstream plans to invest $1 billion in upgrading Port of Calhoun to accommodate the volume of future crude oil exports. Completion of the first phase of the project was slated for late 2020 and the second phase should be done by 2023. 

The Calhoun Port Authority did not respond to a request for comment. 

In March, Coraggio Maglio, chief of hydraulics and hydrology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District, said at a public hearing that the dredging project was on a fast track. “Typically, when we go through an effort like this, we have a year, year and a half or two years to do what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re condensing it down to four to five months so we’re tightening our timelines and working as fast as we can.”

The community members in attendance were concerned, especially about the environmental impact of the mercury-tainted materials that would be dredged up and the new, unconfined open-water placement sites the Corps proposed for the disposal of the dredged sediment. 

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Dr. Paul Bunnell, president of the local nonprofit Lavaca Bay Foundation, said he was disappointed when the corps officials said they wanted to work with the community but were not interested in hearing anything that would require redesigning the project because they are under tight deadlines. 

The foundation’s chairman, Jim Blackburn, an environmentalist and Rice University professor, requested in an April 15 letter to the Army Corps that a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement be conducted to analyze changes the corps has made to its initial 2009 dredging plan and modifications done in the last two years.   

Blackburn said in the letter that mercury contaminants in Lavaca and Matagorda Bay will be picked up and redistributed by the dredging, and the changed disposal locations and design will lead to more sediment distributed along the western shoreline of Matagorda bay. The impact on oyster reefs and seagrass beds will be much greater, he said, and the effects of more mercury entering the bay ecosystem and into the food chain through fish and humans must be re-evaluated.  

On April 20, the Lavaca Bay Foundation and Matagorda Bay Foundation jointly sent a 17-page letter to the Army Corps saying the current “least cost” plan, which proposes moving dredged material to unconfined open bay areas west of the ship channel, is a “dramatic departure” from the containment sites identified in 2009 environmental impact statement. The foundations contend these changes are significant and, under the National Environmental Policy Act and Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) rules, necessitate a new assessment.

Among the myriad concerns raised in the letter is dissatisfaction with the proposed mitigation plans. The foundations argue that increased salinity and sediment transport alone will result in significantly more oyster deaths and habitat losses than the Corps acknowledges. 

In all, the foundations highlighted 12 points that illustrate what they describe as adverse impacts on natural habitat, local communities and associated commercial activities. The corps has yet to respond. 

In 2018 and 2019, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service independently concluded that existing studies did not adequately assess the project’s impact on natural resources and habitat.

The agencies also raised concerns about legacy mercury contamination spreading throughout the bay as a result of dredging, adding that the selection of new open sites for dredge material disposal are in stark contrast to the original 2009 plan. A third party review led by a panel of experts in 2018 echoed similar concerns at length. 

Lynda Yezzi, the Army Corps’ public affairs chief in Galveston, said the dredging “is a congressionally authorized project.” She also provided a federal register notice showing the corps did seek public comments, as did the Calhoun Port Authority, she said. 

‘I Got a New Mugshot’

Buckner, manager of Earth Works’ Infrastructure and Petrochemicals Campaign, said the plan to expand the Port of Calhoun and dredge Lavaca Bay is the result of lifting the ban on crude oil exports in 2015, which has triggered tremendous competition among oil and gas companies to build export facilities. 

Buckner said there are at least nine proposed crude export facilities along the Gulf of Mexico, some of which could move up to 2 million barrels per day. 

Echoing these concerns, over 80 community groups and environmental organizations sent a letter to President Biden in April asking the administration to revoke the project’s authorization and reinstate the crude export ban. Arguing that the project is being unduly rushed and merits re-evaluation, the letter said projects like the Max Midstream export terminal would expand and perpetuate fossil fuel dependence for decades to come. 

Buckner said the community in Calhoun County would essentially be suffering from additional pollution from toxics in order to allow Max Midstream to export climate-polluting products to other countries. 

Wilson, lying in the coffin while blocking the entrance to the Army Corps’ offices in Galveston, was indeed quickly arrested and led away, just as she’d anticipated. As that was taking place, the Calhoun Port Authority and Max Midstream announced the first successful loading of crude at the Port of Calhoun Terminal, which left them a step closer to shipping Texas oil to European markets.

The following morning, Wilson was spirited but audibly weak after the night in jail. (She ended her hunger strike that day). “Look, I got a new mugshot,” she said. “I’m on to a new resistance now. You will soon see what we’re going to do next. They’re not going to take the Bay from me.”