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Communities Forge Ahead Against the Relentless Growth of the Houston Ship Channel

Public Citizen News / Sept.-Oct. 2023

By Erandi Treviño

Communities along the massive Port of Houston in Texas are some of the most environmentally vulnerable in the U.S. One — Pleasantville — is so severely underserved and overburdened that it ranks in the 0.1 percentile of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s vulnerability index.

Despite, or because of, those challenges, residents in Pleasantville and neighboring port communities stand firm against the risk of additional threats.

And now they are facing a big challenge: the Port Houston Authority and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are planning an expansion of the Houston Ship Channel. The expansion, named Project 11, will widen and deepen the channel. But as with previous expansions, there is a risk that port communities will be left to sacrifice their health for the sake of the bigger ships that will be able to come to port.

As a Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC) member, Public Citizen is working with Port communities to push back against the plan and demand, at minimum, that construction plans address identifiable risks to the people living near the port.

Houston’s port is one of the largest in the world and the largest in the country by foreign tonnage, and its shores are lined with refineries and petrochemical facilities that have spewed oil and chemicals into the channel for decades.

With any number of unknown substances settling on the ship channel floor, it is understandable that nearby residents worry that the dredged spoils will migrate to their neighborhood with insufficient safeguards to protect people and property.

Impacts on neighboring communities from the expansion plans also include air pollution from dredging equipment such as barges and support vessels. Additionally, the placement of the dredged materials, also known as spoils, raises issues of toxicity and flooding.

It’s this multitude of threats that convinced advocates that the Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers needed to tour some of the communities that face the most potential harm during and after the expansion project. In June, Public Citizen arranged just such a tour.

The tour provided an opportunity for significant dialogue that followed years of strained communication between
the agencies on one side and advocates and, most importantly, community members on the other.

While essential in advancing the community’s concerns with the project, the tour came with its frustrations. As community members shared their experiences, we felt that our voices were not heard. Agency representatives mostly disagreed with our presentation of the facts. We couldn’t agree, for example, on whether material dredged from the bottom of the ship channel was likely to be toxic and threaten communities. It was evident that both sides must understand the facts to move forward with a meaningful conversation and accomplish priorities.

By the end of the tour, the Port and the Army Corps of Engineers committed to a technical meeting facilitated by the EPA, and the Port agreed to host community meetings to offer the clarity required with a risk of this magnitude.

September and October will be critical for these ongoing efforts because they will allow the community’s technical experts to meet with the Army Corps and Port engineers. We hope to agree on the facts before the Port Authority hosts community meetings to share the risks and how to address them.

The leadership of the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA know the port is an economic engine for the Houston region. This tour was a chance for advocates and residents to show them firsthand the human cost that comes with that economic activity.

Following the 2016 Panama Canal expansion, Houston, like many other Ports, faced pressure to expand to accommodate the larger ships now crossing the canal. The Port of Houston, as the owner and operator of the Ship Channel’s eight public facilities and two of the busiest container terminals in the nation, plans to do just that. As the local sponsor of this major federal waterway in Houston, the Port Authority has partnered with the USACE for Project 11, the Ship Channel’s eleventh major expansion.

The project is divided into six sections. The first three are to be handled by the Port, while the Army Corps of Engineers will be in charge of managing the other three sections of the project. When complete, the channel will be 170 feet wider along its Galveston Bay and deepen the channel to as much as 46.5 feet