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Port of Corpus Christi Executive Director says EPA move a 'roadblock' to securing desal permit

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Posted at 3:48 PM, Sep 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-24 19:22:36-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Port of Corpus Christi Executive Director Sean Strawbridge told several area business leaders and elected officials Thursday that the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) decision to revoke the waiver for permit review is unprecedented, and another roadblock to making desalination a reality in Corpus Christi.

The port says the permits it seeks would secure an uninterruptible and drought-proof water source for the region.

“We the port are absolutely committed to procuring at least one permit, if not two, for seawater desalination," he said. "That's what we're singularly focused on because, in the absence of a permit, there's not much to talk about.

Strawbridge says a letter sent to the port and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Monday indicated all desalination facilities in the State of Texas had waivers revoked by the EPA. There are four pending desalination permits submitted with TCEQ.

The port is seeking permits for a desalination plant at Harbor Island, which was specifically mentioned in the letter by the EPA, as well as a plant in the La Quinta Ship Channel.

The City of Corpus Christi is also seeking permits in the Inner Harbor and La Quinta Ship Channel.

Corpus Christi City Manager Peter Zanoni says the city does have a permit waiver for both of its applications and to date has not received notification from the EPA that either permit is revoked.

Zanoni added the city called the TCEQ on Friday to confirm that its two permits were not impacted by the letter sent to the port and plans to meet with the TCEQ next week to better understand potential impacts of the EPA’s decision to review the port’s application.

The EPA said in the letter that it is its job to ensure that state-issued permits "are consistent with the requirements of the Clean Water Act and protective of water quality and aquatic life."

TCEQ provided this statement to KRIS 6 News:

"TCEQ is in receipt of and reviewing EPA’s letter. Since EPA authorized delegation of the NPDES program to Texas in 1998, the agency has maintained a robust permitting program, which includes public participation at multiple junctures throughout the permitting process. The agency received the draft application on March 7, 2018, and have worked diligently to include the public according to long-accepted administrative procedures. EPA has had every opportunity since March 2018 to engage in the process and has chosen not to provide comments or participate in discussions regarding the permit in a timely manner."

Strawbridge told attendees at the meeting that neither the TCEQ nor the port were consulted on the EPA's decision.

"I suspect what's happened is there's been some protestants [sic] who have lobbied the EPA to terminate that waiver, and rather than the EPA doing what it should have done -- which is engage the TCEQ and review the TCEQ process and the application -- they've just terminated the waiver,” he said.

Strawbridge also said he believes the current political climate could be impacting the permitting process.

“Texas and the Biden Administration are not in alignment on a lot of things," he said. "And we are likely going to be punished for the political differences that exist between this administration and the State of Texas."

He further said the region needs to push back on outside environmental groups, calling groups such as the Sierra Club, and the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), and the Environmental Defense Fund "oppositional forces."

On Thursday, more than 20 environmental groups petitioned the EPA over the TCEQ's water permitting.

"They are well-funded, environmental justice organizations who are now taking full aim at the Coastal Bend," he said. "And I think if we're going to continue our wonderful economic prosperity and growth trajectory that we've experienced over the last decade, we're going to need to really circle the wagons on this.”

He said the port is committed to environmental initiatives, including carbon capture-and-storage and hydrogen production initiatives, as well as improving air and water quality and habitat preservation and restoration.

Doug Allison, an attorney for the port, said the port has a number of lobbyists who represent them on the state and national levels.

He told members of the group he is concerned that Nueces County commissioners are prepared to "fire" lobbyists this week because now is the time when they are needed to lobby the TCEQ and EPA, as well as go after $16 billion in funds that the legislature will allocate.

“We are playing on a national and international stage, and we need to behave that way," he said. "To start cutting the consultants for the county, or consultants for the city -- who at least have the ability to call the EPA, call the TCEQ, to call the governor's office -- we lose our seat at the table for this national and international moment."

Last week, commissioners voted to pay lobbyists less money, but did not terminate the contracts. The lobbyists have the option to accept the terms, or not.

As for the future of the port's desalination permits, Strawbridge says the port is trying to determine what the TCEQ will do.

“(It's) another unfortunate roadblock in this initiative, and doesn't put us any closer to procuring a permit, and focusing on an uninterruptible drought-proof supply of water in the Southwestern United States needs so badly,“ he said.

KRIS 6 News reached out to Sean Strawbridge and Doug Allison for comment but has not received a response.