Posted on December 14, 2022
A coalition of environmental groups, including some from the Crossroads, declared victory in a dispute with a federal agency on Tuesday.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced its intention to roll back an environmental statement it had finalized as part of its plans for the expansion of the Matagorda Ship Channel.
The decision came after the coalition sued the Army Corps in U.S. district court earlier this year. The environmental groups involved in the lawsuit claimed the Army Corps must reevaluate the supplemental environmental impact statement it used as the basis for the channel expansion design it proposed in 2019.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta ordered both parties to file a joint status report by Dec. 20. The report would declare whether the case is moot or if it requires further legal proceedings.
Erin Gaines, an attorney representing the environmental coalition, said the notice from the Army Corps does not automatically dismiss the lawsuit.
“We are still figuring out the exact terms because we want to make sure what (the Army Corps) is agreeing to is what we are looking for,” Gaines said Tuesday.
In its report, the Army Corps stated the necessary dredging activities would result in the removal of around 130 acres of oyster reefs. The agency planned to fully replace the removed habitats.
But environmental groups such as the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper pushed for a new environmental impact statement after reading a 2021 study published by researchers at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The researches stated dredging for the ship channel project would remove an estimated 800 acres of oyster reefs and 1,000 acres of seagrass beds.
Diane Wilson, director of Waterkeeper, said Tuesday’s decision is a “huge win” for the environmental groups involved.
“People told me there was no way we could stop it,” Wilson said. “Apparently (the Army Corps) agreed with us that a new supplemental environmental impact statement is necessary. I’m really thrilled.”
If expanded, the Matagorda Ship Channel could allow larger vessels to dock in the Port of Calhoun. The Army Corps recommended a 1,200-foot turning basin be constructed as part of the project.
Under the Corps’ design, the entrance to the channel would be expanded by 13,000 feet and both the entrance and bay-side channels would be deepened by 9 feet. The bottom width of the entrance channel would be widened by 250 feet and the bottom width of the bay channel would be widened by 100 feet.
In addition to their concerns about wildlife habitat loss, the environmental coalition took issue with the expansion project’s proximity to the Alcoa Superfund site in Lavaca Bay. Fish and crabs were once exposed to mercury waste from Alcoa Corp.’s now-shuttered chlor-alkali plant in Point Comfort.
A section of Lavaca Bay has been closed to fishing since 1988 due to unsafe mercury levels.