To expand the Houston Ship Channel, the Army Corps intends to dump on the same communities as always
Juan Flores grew up playing in open fields of mud, grass and overgrown brush not far from his house in Galena Park, a small city on the Houston Ship Channel, home to one of the world’s most highly concentrated clusters of refineries and petrochemical plants.
The fields where Flores and his friends used to play are massive swaths of open space bounded by grass-lined embankments around 20 feet tall. Behind these embankments, over the years, Port Houston and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had dumped millions of tons of contaminated sediment dredged from the bottom of the Channel.
As a child, Flores, whose father worked in a nearby Chevron plant, rode his bike all over the dump sites. He and his friends played “quicksand” in the muck, sinking halfway before pulling each other out. He remembers the "rainbow-colored water” – oily residue left behind in the puddles where they would splash around.
“Yeah, we didn’t know anything,” said Flores, 45, a lifelong resident of Galena Park and manager of an air monitoring program for Air Alliance Houston. “Now that I’m older, I realize that was very stupid of me, but I didn’t know.”
Now, another million cubic yards of dredge materials – enough to fill one and a half football stadiums – will be headed for these same dump sites because of Port Houston’s latest expansion project, Project 11. It’ll deepen and widen the channel over 39 miles of its 52-mile course from Galveston Island into the city. The dredging will make more room for larger cargo ships, including tankers filling up oil and chemicals produced during a recent boom.
Most of the neighborhoods near the Ship Channel sediment dump sites are primarily Latino and Black and include higher poverty rates than areas of Houston with less pollution risk. The industry’s presence means these communities, including Pleasantville, Clinton Park and Galena Park, already have some of the highest cancer risks due to air pollution in the U.S., according to the EPA.
In an environmental impact statement issued December 2019, the Corps acknowledged that the neighborhoods near the dump sites do have “minority-dominated populations.” But they said the depositing of dredged material wouldn’t have environmental justice implications in part because some of the sites are already in use. “The impacts from their use for new work would be temporary, experienced over three months of site preparation at a given site, followed by three months of placement,” the Corps states. “The placement of material would not produce significantly adverse long-term exposures from air, noise, water or other media impacts.”
Sampling shows dredge materials loaded with contaminants
Residents and environmental groups alike are concerned that the dredge materials do expose residents. People walk, bike and drive vehicles on the dump sites, which have signs warning against trespassing, but often lack fences. Bike paths run alongside two of the sites, and the Galena Park Little League fields are crammed between the enormous embankments surrounding them. Advocates are urging the Corps, in charge of permitting the project and disposing of the sediment, to place the dredge materials in locations farther from people.
That’s because the sediment dredged from the channel is loaded with contaminants, according to a June 2019 sampling report. Levels of sediment sampled from an inner-city reach of the channel show three different polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – or PAHs – at concentrations ranging from 109 times to more than 1,110 times the cancer risk threshold. The class of chemicals has been linked to many different types of cancers, including those of the skin, lung, bladder, liver and stomach.
Other contaminants found at levels that exceeded federal screening benchmarks include pesticides like DDT, carcinogenic PCBs and heavy metals like zinc, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and nickel.
Bridgette Murray, a retired nurse and founder of a Pleasantville-based nonprofit called Achieving Community Tasks Successfully, serves on Port Houston’s Community Advisory Council. In an interview, she said port leadership has committed to using dredging equipment that will create less pollution and disposing of the sediment in areas more out of harm’s way.
But so far, they’ve gotten no such response from the Corps, Murray said, raising concerns that sediment dumping in these neighborhoods will go on indefinitely. Even without Project 11, the Corps’ plans call for continued dumping from routine maintenance dredging in four existing sites in the area – Rosa Allen, the House Tract and East and West Clinton. This would add up to 32 million cubic yards of sludge over the next 50 years.
“What about the community?” Murray asked. “Some of these sites are just a few feet from peoples’ homes.”
To make enough space for dredge materials from Project 11, the Corps’ plans call for reopening two long-inactive sediment disposal sites – Filter Bed and Glendale – located in Pleasantville. It would also allow a new disposal site to be built next to the existing Clinton sites in Galena Park.
The Glendale site in Pleasantville has breached multiple times, spilling contaminated sludge into the neighborhood built after World War II as one of Houston’s first middle-class developments open to Black homeowners. In 1957, the site was breached, releasing a flow of deposited sludge so deep that some residents had to climb onto their rooftops and wait to be rescued, according to a history published by the Houston Flood Museum.
“You looked out the car and all you see is sludge, and dirt, and water, and you didn’t know what else was in it,” resident Cleophus Sharp, who was 4 or 5 at the time, said during a video interview for the history. “It was brown, it was a dark brown, and I had never seen anything like it before – it came up to the car door.”
In 2017, water from the site again poured into the neighborhood after Hurricane Harvey's record rainfall, made 38 times more intense by climate pollution, caused severe flooding throughout Houston. Residents say the floodwater escaped the site area after an old metal drainage pipe failed in the wake of the storm.
A long history of oil refining and chemical production
Despite their concerns, many residents see the plan to expand the channel as inevitable. Dredging to keep the port open for business has already pulled millions of tons of muck from the bottom of the channel, much of it contaminated by more than a century of heavy industry and urban runoff.
The $1 billion endeavor is the 11th major public works project on the Ship Channel since the 1840s. At that time, Houston’s population numbered only a few thousand. The oil industry wouldn’t come to Texas for another 60 years, and the land that would become the Ship Channel was a tangle of bayous and swamps near where three rivers – the Trinity, the San Jacinto and Buffalo Bayou – prepare to meet the Gulf of Mexico.
That changed after 1900, when a major hurricane devastated Galveston, then the largest city in Texas. The coastal population began shifting inland, leading to a growing number of settlements along Buffalo Bayou. In 1901, oil shot into the heavens from the famous gusher well in Spindletop only 70 miles to the east, signaling the beginning of the industry in Texas.
Creating a channel wide and deep enough to handle commercial traffic has been a local priority since the earliest days. In 1909, Harris County residents formed a navigation district that issued bonds to fund half the cost of dredging the channel, with the other half provided by the federal government. The channel officially opened in 1914.
Fast-forward 120 years later, and Port Houston is among the world’s busiest – first in the U.S. and 10th globally when it comes to volume of tonnage. The port handles more than 9,000 deep-water vessels and 200,000 barge trips every year. As the late Houston oil industry lawyer and port commissioner Fentress Bracewell said, “Houston is truly the town that built a port that built a city."
Port officials say Project 11 is necessary to alleviate congestion in the channel, especially from the largest sizes of oil tankers and container ships. According to permit documents, large vessels must lighten their loads to traverse the channel, and the channel doesn’t contain enough space for many ships to pass each other traveling in opposite directions, sometimes requiring a navigation trick known as "Texas chicken."
A webpage for Project 11 states that “more than $50 billion has been invested by the employers and manufacturers at the Port of Houston to handle increasing exports and imports. Much is at stake – it is critical that the necessary infrastructure be in place to accommodate future economic opportunities."
But a deeper, wider channel inevitably means more sludge, more oil and chemical tankers and more air pollution from the plants that supply them. For Flores, who was recently diagnosed with a precursor of a blood cancer called multiple myeloma, exposure to air toxics like benzene is another serious concern.
All Flores’s siblings have moved away from Galena Park. After his diagnosis, he feels he might also need to leave, though he doesn’t want to. “We’re a small town here. A lot of people know each other,” he said. “It’s not as simple as, ‘Let me pack up my stuff and go,’ which, you know, I have the means to if I want. But other people don’t.”
This story was originally published on Oil & Gas Watch.
Gibbons is a reporter for Oil & Gas Watch.
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