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Port Aransas battles Big Oil to preserve its coastal vibe

Port of CC v. Port A 0905.jpg
Posted at 4:20 PM, Mar 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-22 18:13:02-04

PORT ARANSAS, Texas (AP) — Retired marine science professor Joan Holt has lived in Port “A” for 45 years, watching it become one of the state’s most popular beach towns.

More than 5 million visitors a year come here for the fishing, white beaches, seafood and bird-watching, an activity now enhanced by two endangered whooping cranes.

Images of mermaids, sailors, giant shark’s maws and fake lighthouses give the seaside city of about 3,500 residents a carefree demeanor.

But despite appearances, all is not well in Port Aransas.

Still recovering from the battering it took from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the city is now grappling with the Port Authority of Corpus Christi’s unpopular plan to build a crude oil loading terminal and a desalinization plant on nearby Harbor Island.

To glimpse what that future might hold, Holt only needs to look west, down the ship channel, where tank farms and oil loading terminals are rapidly being built on Corpus Christi Bay.

The mammoth crane built by Kiewit Offshore Services Ltd. looms over homes at Ingleside on the Bay. (Bob Owen ' Express-News)

“Right now, I can see Ingleside where they are loading VLCCs (very large crude carriers); and at night, the lights are unbelievable. And that’s 10 miles away,” Holt, a Port Aransas City Council member, told the San Antonio Express-News. “So, I know what it will be like on Harbor Island with no light controls.”

Harbor Island sits just across the Corpus Christi Ship Channel from Port Aransas. The funky beach town and Big Oil already exist shoulder to shoulder at the channel, which is used by about 4,900 barges and 1,900 large ships a year.

The largest are the VLCC supertankers —-1,100-foot-long behemoths filled with up to 2 million barrels of oil. A loaded VLCC, longer than three football fields, requires a 75-foot deep channel and a huge turning radius.

Until now, the berths and industrial activity have been kept at a distance. Plans for the island include berths for four VLCCs and dredging a deep channel 10 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

“Harbor Island has a long and rich history of industrial development. It was once the largest crude marine terminal in the world,” said Sean Strawbridge, the CEO of the Port Authority of Corpus Christi.

Old photos of the island show docks and rows of oil storage tanks.

The port, which has experienced tremendous growth since the U.S. lifted the ban on exporting oil in 2015, is now flush with ambition, projects and cash.

Its stated objective is to become “The Energy Port of the Americas.”

About 2.2 million barrels of oil, most of it piped in from the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford shale plays, moves through the port every day. The volume could more than double.

“In our view, 5 million barrels a day is the target for Corpus Christi,” Strawbridge said.

The port has already signed a deal with Lone Star Ports to operate one VLCC loading terminal on Harbor Island. Another company, Axis Midstream of Houston, also intends to build a terminal on the island.

The two projects are across the ship channel from a public park and marina. If built, they would bracket the public ferry crossing into Port Aransas.

Holt fears the potential harmful effects on the estuary and sea grasses that serve as a nursery for Port A’s fishing industry.

“Right now, it’s a pretty healthy population of fish, shrimp and crabs, all of which use the channel,” she said. “The larvae are sensitive to the sediments caused by dredging, to petroleum products or to any chemicals that contaminate the water. Those are all worrisome to me as a scientist.”

Complicating the situation is the city’s ongoing legal fight with the Port Authority.

Among the disputed issues are the city’s right to apply its regulations on the part of Harbor Island that is within the city limits.

The Port Authority claims the city has limited oversight, at best, and also lacks the technical expertise to oversee the project.

The city claims the agency has kept it in the dark about its plans.

Last February, the Port Aransas council authorized city staff to hire a lawyer to challenge “the age, accuracy and soundness” of “the scientific and socio-economic data” contained in regulatory permits being sought for Harbor Island.

In August, the city suspended for 60 days the issuance of permits on Harbor Island “for heavy industrial uses.”

Four days later, the port sued the city in county court, claiming the city had violated state law in trying to block the plan.

Soon after it sued, the port dropped a second bomb by notifying the city that its long-term lease to operate the city marina on land owned by the port was canceled.

It has also filed objections with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the city’s application to renew a five-year marina permit on other property the city owns on the ship channel.

The port’s actions are viewed as attempts to strong-arm the city.

“What they are doing is pressuring us every way they can, probably hoping the city will run out of money, so they can do what they want over there, they can have all the noise and light and smell that will go along with that,” Holt said.

Or, as James King, who, with wife Tammy King, owns a vacation home here, bluntly put it: “The port has gone crazy. They are acting like the mob.”

Port leaders deny they are trying to coerce or bully the city, and say they are merely enforcing the lease, which included language about the city not interfering with the Harbor Island development.

“A lease is a contract. There are terms. This particular one was not adhered to,” Strawbridge said.

The city has countersued, claiming the port is using “extortion” to get free rein to develop Harbor Island.

“We are at war,” City Manager David Parsons said. “They want to beat us down and hold a sword to our neck in the permitting process.”

Parsons acknowledges that zoning on Harbor Island allows the Port Authority to pursue at least some of the projects it envisions, including marine terminals, oil and gas storage facilities and shipyards.

“We recognize their right to build it, but they don’t recognize our right to permit it and protect the health, life and safety of the people within our city,” he said.

Charlie Zahn, 74, the most prominent local supporter of the project has been a Port Aransas resident since 1970 and has a county road named after him.

The chairman of the Port Authority board, he said he now encounters “a lot of hostility” in his hometown.

“My wife and I listen to it every day. I find it almost humorous that they keep saying they need a representative on the board,” he added.

Despite all the rancor and litigation, Zahn remains hopeful of a peaceful resolution.

“I think middle ground exists, at least on our side,” he said.

Strawbridge said the Port Authority’s environmental record is exemplary.

A recent cruise down the ship channel passed by dark mangrove thickets, islands built up from dredging spoil, and anglers fishing here for winter red fish and black drum.

The Dolphin Adventures tourist boat zipped past lumbering tankers, including the NS Columbus and Everest Spirit, both riding high in the water.

Guided by tugs, the huge ships come to fill up on West Texas crude at the new terminals at Ingleside.

Smaller than VLCCs, each can haul close to a million barrels of crude.

Construction activity at Ingleside was furious, with cranes and dredging barges working hard at building new terminals and other infrastructure in front of dozens of huge white storage tanks.

“Most of these big tanks were not here a year ago,” said Jo Ellyn Krueger, manager of the Trout Street marina.

“They’ve built so much stuff so fast, and there are so many companies involved, it’s crazy,” added Krueger, who is a member of the Port Aransas Conservancy, one of the citizen groups opposed to Harbor Island development.

Farther west, into the La Quinta Channel, the Cheniere Energy liquefied natural gas facility loomed into view. Fed by a 48-inch gas pipeline, the operation is projected to export about 14 million tons of natural gas a year.

For Barney Farley, 73, whose great-Uncle Charles Farley helped establish the iconic Farley Boat Works here in 1915, the boat cruise was eye-opening.

“Port Aransas is my homeland and it’s under attack. I knew it but I didn’t realize it. A trip like this makes it real,” he said.

“We feel the Harbor Island project is antithetical to what we have. Not only is this a nice place to live, we have an environment that works. This is a marine life engine. They want to bring in all this heat, pressure and chemicals. Common sense says that is not a good idea.”

John Donovan, a founding member of Port Aransas Conservancy who lives in Austin and owns a vacation home in Port Aransas, said the organization hopes to slow the port down by contesting permits.

“We get something like 6 million visitors a year, so the town is totally dependent on tourism. Who wants to vacation across from a supertanker terminal? We’re worried about Port Aransas becoming Port Arthur,” he added.

Strawbridge said the port is making good progress toward beginning construction.

“We hope to have all the necessary permits in the coming months. We’ve got bids out right now for dredging, building of docks and installing of heavy equipment,” he said.

“You can’t buy a $2 million home on the ship channel and complain when the ships go by,” he added.

For old-timers with good memories, the brawl over Harbor Island reprises familiar themes that played out here on a far grander scale.

Five decades ago, the Port Authority tried to build a huge deepwater port there, complete with an 80-foot channel into the gulf, two docks for supertankers, a turning basin with a radius of 2,300 feet and a railroad causeway from the mainland.

The project was supported by the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce and the Port Aransas City Council. The resistance was led by Steve Frishman, owner of the Port Aransas South Jetty, the local weekly.

In one article, Frishman pointed out that the project would require the dredging of 179 million cubic yards of spoil, an effort that would take three or four years.

A citizens group was quickly formed, and hundreds began attending and speaking at public hearings on the project, which would have destroyed 3,000 acres of wetlands.

Ultimately the so-called Deeport Project stalled after the Environmental Protection Agency urged the Army Corps of Engineers to reject it as being environmentally harmful and redundant to other projects on the gulf.

Other agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife, also came out against the project.

Recently, Mary Judson, the co-owner and editor of the South Jetty, reprinted a Frishman column from 1972 that made the case against the project.

Noting that “not much has changed,” she wrote that the Port of Corpus Christi is again proposing a dubious project “without regard to the desires of the people of Port Aransas, and, it seems, the potential damage to the environment.”

Greg Stunz, a marine biologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi, lives in Port Aransas and regularly sees the whooping cranes there.

He described the channel inlet as an “ecological hotspot” that the estuary depends on for the movement of water and marine life, including shrimp, crab and fish.

“If you interfere with that dynamic, you can harm the sustainability of the fishery,” he said.

Thus, he said, Harbor Island is the wrong place to build a crude terminal project and a desalination plant and to do deep dredging.

“No one is opposed to desalinization or to loading oil and gas carriers. It’s a location problem. The science shows there are much better places to carry out these activities,” he said.

Strawbridge disagrees.

“There is no scientific proof that our project would cause environmental harm. Show us the data,” he said.

Since 1984, Butch Findley, 72, has been guiding fishermen out of Port A to seek flounder, red fish and trout in the bays, and cobia, tuna, red snapper and bill fish in the open gulf.

While the fishing is still good, he said there’s no comparison to how it was when he was a boy. He blames the constant pressure by fishermen, the petrochemical industry and other development.

“As to me and my compadres, it’s almost a unanimous feeling that we don’t want any industrial development projects on Harbor Island,” he said. “Why take a chance and mess it up? All it would take is one accident with a VLCC. That would cause harm that would last for years.”

For Findley, a major oil spill is not an abstraction.

In 1979, when the Ixtoc 1 well exploded in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche, he was working here at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.

It took nine months for Pemex to plug the leak, which dumped more than 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, some of it reaching South Texas.

“The oil first showed up as black blobs. Then they got as big as cow pies,” he recalled. “Luckily not much got into the estuaries. But enough did to affect the fishing for the next three or four years.”

Now, 40 years later, Findley has no doubt that the toxic residue of the Ixtoc spill remains.

“I challenge anyone to take a post hole digger to the beach and go down 3 feet. You’ll find a black gooey mess,” he said.