Hearing slated on desalination permit



The Corpus Christi Ship Channel off Port Aransas is seen in an aerial photo shot in 2020. Dennis Dreyer Municipal Harbor is at upper right. Harbor Island occupies the lower half of the photo. The Port of Corpus Christi is seeking a permit to discharge potentially tens of millions of gallons of water treatment wastes daily into the channel from a proposed desalination plant. The ‘X’ marks the area where the discharge is proposed. South Jetty photo-illustration

The Corpus Christi Ship Channel off Port Aransas is seen in an aerial photo shot in 2020. Dennis Dreyer Municipal Harbor is at upper right. Harbor Island occupies the lower half of the photo. The Port of Corpus Christi is seeking a permit to discharge potentially tens of millions of gallons of water treatment wastes daily into the channel from a proposed desalination plant. The ‘X’ marks the area where the discharge is proposed. South Jetty photo-illustration

Judges are set once again to consider whether a permit to discharge desalination plant wastewater into the ship channel in Port Aransas should be granted to the Port of Corpus Christi.

The proceeding before administrative law judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings in Austin is scheduled to begin on Monday, March 14, and could run through Friday, March 25.

Folks involved in the hearing are expecting it to be held virtually, through Zoom, and for it likely to be live-streamed. No URL was available at press time for a live-stream, but it appeared likely that the live-stream would be available on the YouTube channel of the State Office of Administrative Hearings. (Keep watching the South Jetty for updates on that.)

Residents Lisa Turcotte, Stacey Bartlett, Sarah Searight and Port Aransas city council member Jo Ellyn Krueger are going to be involved in the hearing as pro se opponents of the application for the wastewater discharge permit.

An opening statement by Turcotte, speaking for the pro se group, is expected to be made by Zoom from the front porch of Luke and Willy Dailey on Monday, March 14, as proceedings get underway, according to Port Aransas resident Cathy Fulton, who is asking as spokesman for the pro se group.

Fulton said the pro se group is encouraging Port Aransans to drop by the Daileys’ front porch to stand behind Turcotte as a show of support, Fulton said. Folks should show up at 9 a.m., she said, adding that the statement is likely to be read shortly later.

Luke Dailey confirmed that folks are welcome to drop by. The Daileys live at 619 E. Ave. B.

A pair of judges from the State Office of Administrative Hearings ruled about a year ago that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality board should deny the wastewater discharge application by the Port of Corpus Christi.

The matter then was set before the TCEQ board, which had the power to grant or deny the application.

The board next sent the case back to the judges, saying that they should, among other actions, take additional evidence on whether the proposed discharge will hurt the environment and recreational activities and commercial fishing.

The motion said the judges should hear more evidence also on whether the port’s application is complete and accurate.

And, the motion stated, the judges should hear additional evidence on the accuracy of information that has been used in computer modeling presented with the application.

With their earlier decision, the judges said the modeling was inaccurate. That included the stated depth of the channel at the location where the plant’s outfall would take place. The depth could affect the rate at which the plant’s wastewater might become spread out from the point of discharge.

The judges also said the modeling didn’t seem to take into account the proper velocity at which water moves in the channel.

After the hearing this month, and the judges make their ruling, the TCEQ board will take up the matter once again.

The port has applied for a permit for a proposed desalination plant to discharge an average daily flow of up to 95,600,000 gallons of water treatment wastes into the Corpus Christi Ship Channel, just northeast of the ferry landing on Harbor Island.

Port officials have said the port doesn’t want to own or operate the plant but instead would seek to bring in another party to do that if the permit is issued.

Port representatives have argued that the outfall will be diffused enough to prevent it from hurting the environment, and the agency has its own experts who have testified to that.

Others have argued that the TCEQ shouldn’t issue the permit. Set to once again battle the port before the administrative law judges are the pro se group of Port Aransas property owners, the Audubon Texas organization and the Port Aransas Conservancy. They have argued that the discharge likely would harm the environment.

The discharge is targeted for a spot not far from environmentally sensitive areas that marine scientists have said are crucial to the reproduction and overall health of important species such as redfish and blue crab.

The upcoming hearing has been prefaced by weeks of depositions.

Lawyers for the Port of Corpus Christi “basically are not relying on the local science from the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and … the Harte Research Institute (for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi),” said James King, president of the Port Aransas Conservancy.

“They are not utilizing local scientists who know our ecosystem better than anyone, and … have hired guns that are trying to make a rationale that dumping that amount of brine into the Aransas channel isn’t going to harm anything, and it’s just ridiculous,” King said.

A recent move by the EPA appears to represent a new hurdle that the Port of Corpus Christi must clear to get the discharge permit.

In December, the EPA notified TCEQ that the proposed desalination plant should be classified as a major facility. As such, the facility would need a major permit, according to a letter from Charles Maguire, director of the Water Division at the EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, to Earl Lott, director of the TCEQ Office of Water in Austin.

“The EPA has determined that the POCC (Port of Corpus Christi) facility was incorrectly classified as a Minor facility under federal regulations and the Major/Minor worksheet used by the State to classify the facility,” the letter said.

When the permit in question is classified as a major one, the TCEQ is required to provide the EPA with an opportunity to review and comment on it. That’s not always the case with a minor permit.

The EPA could end up raising objections to the proposed discharge permit for the desalination plant envisioned for Harbor Island, according to Rick Lowerre, an Austin attorney representing some who are against the permit being issued.

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