2013-10-24 / Front Page

Harbor Island sale off

Dan Parker
Reporter


Mustang Island, foreground, is the populated part of Port Aransas, but the east end of Harbor Island (background) lies within the city limits, too. The Corpus Christi Port Commission recently tried to sell a 254-acre tract of Harbor Island land to Martin Midstream, a company that offered $34 million and planned to build a petroleum fractionator on the site. While some Port Aransans welcomed the news because it could expand the town’s tax base, others decried it, saying they expected the facility to be an ugly polluter. Commissioners on Monday, Oct. 21, rescinded their offer after another company, The Berry Company, filed a lawsuit alleging that the bidding process wasn’t proper. 
Staff photo by Dan Parker Mustang Island, foreground, is the populated part of Port Aransas, but the east end of Harbor Island (background) lies within the city limits, too. The Corpus Christi Port Commission recently tried to sell a 254-acre tract of Harbor Island land to Martin Midstream, a company that offered $34 million and planned to build a petroleum fractionator on the site. While some Port Aransans welcomed the news because it could expand the town’s tax base, others decried it, saying they expected the facility to be an ugly polluter. Commissioners on Monday, Oct. 21, rescinded their offer after another company, The Berry Company, filed a lawsuit alleging that the bidding process wasn’t proper. Staff photo by Dan Parker Port of Corpus Christi commissioners have decided to rescind their acceptance of a company’s bid to buy a piece of Harbor Island land where the firm planned to build a facility for processing and transport of petroleum products.

Commissioners voted 7-0 on Monday, Oct. 21, to cancel their plans to sell the 254 acres to Martin Midstream.

Earlier, plans for the $34 million sale had some Port Aransans ecstatic over the likelihood that the resulting development would greatly expand the town’s tax base. Others were dismayed by the news, concerned that the facility would end up being an eyesore and pose threats to the environment and human health.

Commissioner Charlie Zahn of Port Aransas said he was disappointed that the sale had to be called off, but it had to be done because another firm, the Berry Company, had filed a lawsuit against the port and Martin Midstream, alleging that the port rigged the public bidding process for an illegal sale to Martin.

As a result of the lawsuit, Nueces County Court-at- Law Judge Deanne Galvan imposed a temporary restraining order that prevented the sale from moving forward, at least for a while. A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 23, to determine whether a temporary injunction should be imposed in the case. (The hearing was to be held after the South Jetty’s deadline for the current edition. Check the newspaper’s website for developments in the case.)

Zahn said the port and Martin did nothing wrong with regard to the bidding process and sale, but commissioners still decided it was in the port’s best interest to cancel the sale because of the lawsuit.

“Litigation, as you and I know, is not something you resolve overnight,” Zahn said. “It sometimes takes years to resolve, and I believe, in my own personal opinion, with litigation pending, the port couldn’t give clear title to the property, and I believe the extended litigation would adversely affect the permitting process, which would be a necessary part of whatever Martin was going to do.”

Zahn said Port Aransas missed out on an opportunity for a “tremendous economic impact.”

Port commissioners now will see what happens in the next court hearing “and then we’ll make a determination in the future, sometime, on whether or not we will continue to offer (the land) for sale, or what have you,” Zahn said.

If the land is to be sold in the future, commissioners must first talk about what they need to do to make sure a purchase goes through without a hitch, and then act accordingly, he said.

“If the port commission decides in the future they’re going to offer it again, I would at least hope that Martin or someone similar to Martin would respond to the offer,” Zahn said. But there are no immediate plans to rebid it, he added.

Martin obtained a “permit by rule” from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to operate a fractionation unit on the Harbor Island property. Such a unit’s function is to separate various components of petroleum.

Permits by rule can be issued to “facilities that will not make a significant contribution of air contaminants to the atmosphere if operated or constructed with certain restrictions,” according to a TCEQ statement provided by Andrea Morrow, a TCEQ spokesman.

Martin applied for the permit on July 18, and it was granted Oct. 9. No public hearings were held before the permit was granted. By law, that kind of permit request requires no public hearings, Morrow said.

Doug Daniell of Port Aransas became so concerned about the proposed facility that he took out a full-page color ad in this edition of the South Jetty to express his opinion on the issue. In the ad, he suggested that the facility will cause property values to drop, hurt tourism and tarnish the Port Aransas lifestyle.

“This is at the front door to Port Aransas and our future,” the ad says. “The warm glow of bright lights and burning flares is at our door step. The island beach smell or the refinery gas odor … what do you want? This is all in our city limits. We can control what is built there, but we have to take a stand. I am first in line. Do you believe not to worry; our government will take care of us?”

Taddy McAllister expressed similar sentiments in a letter to the editor that ran in the Oct. 17 South Jetty.

“Our little town is looking at a future with a big, ugly, dirty refinery right across the channel from our harbor, a refinery with flares going all night and God only knows what kind of stuff spewing out of the top of it,” wrote McAllister, a resident of San Antonio and Port Aransas.

Will Myers also wrote a letter to the editor last week.

“Does Port Aransas really want a blazing fractionator at its front door serving as a greeting to those who come here to enjoy the natural beauty of the coast?” wrote Myers, who lives in Austin and Port Aransas. “Let’s remember what Port Aransas is really selling – nature and escape. Visitors might as well stay in Texas City and enjoy the sight of the refineries up there.”

But the TCEQ’s position doesn’t completely line up with the letter writers’ views. Morrow said a fractionation unit isn’t the same thing as a refinery. She said a fractionation unit separates oil into different components, but the actual refining takes place in a step that’s further down the line at a different facility.

TCEQ spokesmen said Martin didn’t seek permits for a refinery or what is known as a cracker – a facility that breaks down heavy hydrocarbon molecules into lighter molecules using heat, pressure and sometimes catalysts.

A South Jetty reporter made attempts to contact three Martin Midstream officials for comment on what specifically is expected to be built, what it would look like and what its effects and non-effects might be on human and environmental health.

Two of the officials didn’t return phone messages. A third, Scott Southard, Martin’s vice president for commercial development, declined to comment.

Southard has said in the past that the company wants to use the site for handling and transport of liquefied petroleum gas – propane and butane.

Martin received authorization for “boilers, heaters and other combustion devices,” plus flares and “pressurized tanks and tanks vented to a control device,” according to the TCEQ.

The fractionation unit would work “based on the different boiling points of the different hydrocarbons,” according to a written briefing that Morrow prepared for the South Jetty. “Essentially, fractionation occurs in stages consisting of the boiling off of hydrocarbons one by one in distillation columns.”

Typically, these fractionators first separate ethane, then propane, then butane, the briefing said.

The “debutanizer” leaves pentanes and heavier hydrocarbons behind, according to the briefing. A “butane splitter” or “deisobutanizer separates the (isobutane) and normal butanes,” the briefing said .

The fractionation unit could process up to 7,000 barrels per day, according to the permit application.

The process would result in “emissions related to fugitives, flaring and products of combustion,” the briefing said.

The permit allows as much as 11.03 tons of volatile organic compounds, up to 5.69 tons of nitrous oxides and as much as 3.94 tons of particulate matter to be put into the air each year, according to the briefing material.

Tons of matter flowing into the air each year might sound like a lot, but Morrow said those limits are conservatively set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to protect human health and the environment.

Because of its sheer size, a refinery would put out far greater emissions, Morrow said. She also was careful to say that refinery emissions generally aren’t harmful to human health either, as long as industry stays within limits set by the state and federal regulators.

The Harbor Island property was used for decades for oil and gas facilities before a tank farm was dismantled several years ago and the soil underwent an environmental cleanup.

City Manager Dave Parsons said the area remains zoned for industry.

Mayor Keith McMullin and Parsons met with Martin representatives several weeks ago. The company officials talked about what they planned.

“We looked at their elevation schematics. It’s a very low-profile facility. It’s not this giant thing like you see on (Interstate Hwy.) 37 when you’re driving out toward Calallen. It’s not even close to that,” Parsons said.

“When you look at it from across the channel, in my opinion, it’s a pretty insignificant horizon penetration or obstruction.”

Details on how big the facility was expected to be weren’t available.

If Martin did decide to build something more than 50 feet high, there may not be much city officials could do about it in terms of code enforcement, Parsons said. City codes tend to allow buildings to be built higher if they are surrounded by large amounts of open space, and the Harbor Island tract consists of many dozens of acres of open space.

The city can use its ordinances to prevent noise and light pollution emitted by any industrial presence on that part of Harbor Island, Parsons said.

Ordinances also prohibit odors, he said. Martin officials told city officials there weren’t going to be odors, Parsons said, adding, “that’s something we (would) have to track.”

Zahn said he was certain the facility wouldn’t have been a visual blight or a polluter. He said the people who wrote letters to the editor were “not informed on what was being proposed.”

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