What is Port Houston's Project 11?
In Houston, the quality of the air and water, the stability of the climate and the health of residents have long been sacrificed for economic growth. Nowhere is that clearer than along the 52 murky miles of the Houston Ship Channel, where one of the largest concentrations of oil refineries and chemical facilities in the world operates in communities with some of the highest cancer risks in the city.
An estimated 3 million containers are handled on the channel every year, and Port Houston plans to expand and get that number to 11 million by 2040. But each expansion to accommodate more ships and more containers, each switcher train that hauls cargo to rail yards farther in the city, each diesel-powered truck that rumbles toward each new warehouse, comes at a cost.
Here’s what’s at stake with the next expansion, known as Project 11.
In 1826, the founder of Harrisburg, Texas, was the first to use the dangerously shallow, heavily vegetated Buffalo Bayou to run a private shipping business. But it wasn't until the great storm of 1900 which decimated Galveston that industry largely abandoned the island and looked inland to downtown Houston. After the Spindletop gusher in 1901, as the oil industry expanded, in 1910, Harris County residents voted to approve a $1.25 million local bond to deepen the bayou to 25 feet.
This expansion was, essentially, Project 1, the first infrastructure project in the U.S. that received matching federal funds from Congress. In 1914, the steamboat Satilla docked in Houston after a journey from New York city, the first voyage of its kind. The Ship Channel was officially open for business.
Now 45 feet deep and 530 feet wide, the Ship Channel is still growing. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (or USACE) and the Port of Houston Authority (or Port Houston) are now engaged in their 11th major infrastructure project, Project 11.
This project — a widening and a deepening of the waterway — aims to make the channel safer for the larger ships and barges that go through daily, which often have to employ what’s known as the “Texas Chicken” maneuver, careening toward each other before allowing the wake to set them right as they narrowly pass. This maneuver led, at least in part, to a collision in the channel in 2011.
What does it mean to expand a ship channel?
To expand the channel, large floating pieces of machinery called dredges excavate material from the bottom and the sides. The sludgy sediment removed during this process is called dredge material.
Project 11 plans to widen the channel by 170 feet along Galveston Bay and deepen some upstream segments to 46.5 feet. This will generate an estimated 1 million cubic yards of dredge material.
It has to go somewhere, and the Army Corps has planned to dump it at preexisting sites near the channel — some of which have long been dormant, covered in vegetation. Today, rows of single-family homes, parks and baseball fields sit directly across the street from some of these dump sites. One backs up to the TPC Group chemical plant in the East End. Another, in Pleasantville, flooded nearly 40 city blocks in the 1950s and again during Hurricane Harvey, creating runoff that swamped the streets.
The act of dredging itself creates additional issues: the disruption of sediment leads to short- and long-term water pollution. It can destroy seabed ecosystems and toxins in the sediment can be released, both during dredging and then into the area around the dump sites. The dredges themselves are diesel-powered, which fouls the air with black carbon and NOx, a gas that reacts in Houston’s heat and sunlight to form lung-burning ozone. Ozone is already a problem in Houston that climate change is worsening. In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency downgraded the region once again for failing to cut ozone, a pollutant Houston has never met federal-health based standards for.
During the planned 5 years of construction, the channel will see increased heavy machinery traffic, construction pollution, excess noise and periodic closures. The nearby communities directly affected by Project 11 are Pleasantville, Clinton Park, Galena Park, Pasadena and Channelview. Because of decades of a lack of investment in infrastructure and development of resources and longstanding unequal exposure to harmful pollution, these are some of the communities most at risk in the U.S. from the longer heat waves and stronger storms climate change is causing, the Environmental Defense Fund's and Texas A&M University's new Climate Vulnerability Index shows.
Who is responsible for Project 11?
Port Houston and the the Army Corps are working together to expand the channel. There are 8 sections of Project 11, 2 of which the port is funding and will have oversight of the contractors and their equipment. The Army Corps is responsible for the remaining 6.
Port Houston is a navigation district under the Texas Constitution. It’s a public entity with local, state and federal governmental bodies as stakeholders, which nominate the members of the Port Commission.
Port Houston owns, manages and operates the 8 public terminals along the channel. You can find the laws governing Port Houston in Chapter 5007 of the Texas Special District Laws Code, the Texas Water Code and the Texas Local Government Code.
The Army Corps has an engineer regiment, performs military construction and engages in civil works. You might know the Army Corps by some of its famous, and infamous, projects — the Pentagon, the Panama Canal, the Manhattan Project. The corps is also charged with building the Ike Dike, another billion-dollar project intended to protect the petrochemical complexes along the channel from damage and destruction caused by a hurricane’s storm surge.
What does the EPA have to do with the expansion?
The Environmental Protection Agency is the federal agency tasked with environmental protection matters. The EPA develops and enforces regulations (like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts), gives grants, performs studies and fosters partnerships and education. The EPA has 10 regional offices responsible for executing the EPA’s directives in their respective territories.
EPA Region 6 has oversight over the Army Corps, all environmental protection concerns in the area and more specifically, Project 11. The administrator of EPA Region 6 is Dr. Earthea Nance.
Under the Clean Water Act, it is the Army Corps who are in charge of dispensing permits for dredging. It is unclear what oversight exists when it is the Army Corps themselves doing the dredging.
Where do we go from here?
Project 11’s dredges alone will dump thousands of tons of extra toxic air pollution on the communities nearest the Ship Channel. It’s comparable to what another oil refinery or fossil-fueled power plant would pollute.
So far, Port Houston has agreed to use cleaner dredge machinery in their sections of Project 11. The port has also agreed to move the dredge material to two new sites farther away from communities and out of the danger presented by floodplains.
The Army Corps, responsible for the majority of Project 11 construction, has not agreed to either.
In June 2023, the corps met with the port and EPA and community groups to discuss the toxicity of the soil at the existing sites and the toxicity of the sediment that will be excavated from the channel and deposited. Third-party testing of the soil at the edges of the sites in Galena Park and Pleasantville suggests a need for a more comprehensive analysis of the health risks from harmful contaminants like lead and mercury, which were identified.
To date, the corps has not committed to additional testing.
Hynds is a writer and artist in Houston. West is a writer and editor and manages One Breath for Environmental Defense Fund.
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