If the Ship Channel is deepened to 55 feet, the Bayport Container Terminal could welcome newer carbon-neutral cargo vessels. Photo: Port Houston.

We need to change course on the Ship Channel expansion

August 15th, 2023

If the Ship Channel is deepened to 55 feet, the Bayport Container Terminal could welcome newer carbon-neutral cargo vessels. Photo: Port Houston.

The Bayport Container Terminal, out on Galveston Bay, makes the Port of Houston a lot of money. In early August, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled to the terminal to mark an infrastructure project that will add three container-plucking cranes and extend the dock 1,000 feet out to meet the very large vessels that the Anheuser-Buschs, IKEAs and Walmarts of the world want to send our way.

That expansion means the port will make even more money.

In 2022, 82 percent of the port’s $652 million operating revenue came from container terminals such as this one and Barbours Cut to the north. It’s clear from the port’s own financial statements that future prosperity and job creation depend on the terminals’ growth. By 2040, the port could be processing as many as 11 million containers every year, up from 3.5 million now, on the way to achieving carbon-neutral operations by 2050.

But the port can’t meet these goals if they keep digging themselves into a hole. Right now, Project 11, their $1 billion effort to dredge the channel wider and deeper farther upstream, is mired in financial and environmental muck.

Petrochemical companies told the port they’d share the cost of Project 11 — and they haven’t. With three sections of the eight-section expansion still to dig at a cost of almost $180 million, some port commissioners are doubting they’ll ever see the money. 

“Now all of a sudden we're paying for the whole thing,” Port Commissioner Stephen DonCarlos said at the port’s recent meeting, just a few days before Sec. Buttigieg toured the terminal. “And regardless of how we choose or if we go down the path of trying to get paid back, we're on the hook. We're in $425 million, and we are not going to make money. We're not going to break even on this thing.”

Project 11, conceived years before the federal government made infrastructure money contingent on the inclusion of environmental and racial justice, has been flawed from the start. Years of dredging with older, diesel-powered equipment will create air pollution that will threaten nearby communities such as Galena Park, Pasadena and Pleasantville — pollution equivalent to what would come from a new oil refinery or power plant.

The sediment this equipment will dig up from the Ship Channel contains unhealthy concentrations of toxic chemicals, the project’s environmental impact study shows. Yet it is to be dumped on already-existing dredged sediment sites in these communities that have never been tested for contamination, despite looming like mountains over Little League diamonds, backyard fences and hike and bike trails. Residents have been loud and clear since 2017 they want the sediment moved farther away from their communities. After the site in Pleasantville breached in the 1950s and flooded nearly 40 blocks, it was decommissioned — until Project 11. Now, residents are being told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will design the sites not to flood, but they’re depending on rainfall data from the ’60s and the floodplain maps Hurricane Harvey revealed to be obsolete.

You could do a lot with $180 million. Maersk, which now pays the port more than $113 million a year, and Walmart, one of the port’s largest container customers, recognize the disastrous consequences of climate change and have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2040. The Bayport terminal is where Maersk — one of the largest container shipping lines in the world — could begin operating eight new carbon-neutral ships as soon as 2024. Right now, though, the Ship Channel, at 45 feet, isn’t deep enough for them.

Forget Project 11. What about Project 12? The port should be focusing their infrastructure projects to accommodate these cleaner ships, deepening the Ship Channel to 55 feet. They should be seizing opportunities presented by unprecedented federal legislation and redirecting funds where their benefit can be maximized. Inflation Reduction Act as well as Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act grants specifically set aside for these improvements and broad port decarbonization efforts would pay for 80 percent of the costs of a Bayport expansion and the new zero-emissions cargo-handling cranes and drayage trucks the port needs to achieve their own climate goals.

At this rate, the $180 million stuck in Project 11 could be leveraged into $900 million — and the port could use it. Diesel-powered trucks represent one more source of the harmful air pollution Ship Channel communities have long been burdened with, and the port has exactly one zero-emissions truck.

The port can’t prioritize two infrastructure projects at the same time. The Bayport expansion has the greatest potential to catalyze the sustainable growth the Houston region needs and create even more well-paying jobs. It doesn’t make sense to sink $180 million more into parts of the Ship Channel that generate only 18 percent of the port’s revenue.

The future is elsewhere. It’s time to stop dredging up the past.

This originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

Adler is a senior contributing scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. Murray is the founder of the nonprofit Achieving Community Tasks Successfully, one of the organizations in the Healthy Port Communities Coalition.


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