Port Isabel targets LNG construction, operation

Port Isabel City Manager Jared Hockema delivers a comment in opposition to LNG on behalf of the city during an air quality permit public hearing hosted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in March 2018. (Photo courtesy the Port Isabel-South Padre Press)

The City of Port Isabel, the mayor of Port Isabel and a city commissioner have filed suit against the Brownsville Navigation District over its lease agreements with three liquefied natural gas companies that want to build LNG export terminals at the Port of Brownsville.

Mayor Juan Jose “J.J.” Zamora and Commissioner Martin C. Cantu are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in the 445th state District Court on Jan. 27. The suit requests a preliminary injunction followed by a permanent injunction against construction and operation of LNG plants at the port, alleging that such activity “shall have a detrimental and negative impact upon the environment, including air, soil and water quality” for residents of Port Isabel and wildlife in and around Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Port Isabel City Manager Jared Hockema said the lawsuit is part of the city’s “natural progression” in its years-long opposition to LNG. “At a certain point — when FERC has granted its preliminary approval, there’s permits pending from TCEQ, and we see that the port may then now be in a position to enter into leases with these companies, it becomes ripe then to challenge those leases,” Hockema said Thursday.

As an example, the plaintiffs cite Texas LNG, the smallest of the three proposed LNG projects, whose facility on 625 acres on the north bank of the Brownsville Ship Channel would be in “close proximity” to Port Isabel and LANWR, according to the suit. The plaintiffs cite testimony from board-certified environmental engineer David Allen Weeks to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regarding Texas LNG’s application to build and operate an LNG plant at the port.

According to the suit, Weeks testified that airborne contaminants from the plant would be deposited in LANWR and other areas within Port Isabel’s corporate and extraterritorial boundaries. These contaminants can be absorbed into the food chain and cause “toxic responses” in birds and other mammals and have “direct adverse effects on the ecosystem itself,” he testified, according to the plaintiffs. Among the contaminants are those known to or suspected of causing cancer, Weeks said, according to the suit.

The Port Isabel City Commission is shown during an August 2015 meeting shortly before voting 3-2 to oppose the construction of LNG export terminals at the Port of Brownsville.
(Photo courtesy the Port Isabel-South Padre Press)

Weeks’ testimony came during a contested case hearing last November, during which Port Isabel challenged TCEQ’s approval of the company’s air quality permit application. Hockema characterized the trial-like administrative law hearing as illuminating for how it revealed the regulatory agency’s process for approving the air permit. “We found out how hollow and brittle their (Texas LNG) application was and how deficient TCEQ’s review had been of it,” Hockema said. “TCEQ’s own people testified that actually the application lacked the information they would have needed to make a determination whether or not it met the Clear Air Act.”

The two other proposed LNG projects that have lease agreements with BND are Annova LNG and Rio Grande LNG. All three have received permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to move forward with their projects but are awaiting final investment decisions.

The suit alleges that three LNG plants operating at the same time would have a “large impact” on Port Isabel, LANWR and environs.

The plaintiffs argue that BND’s lease agreements with the three LNG companies subverts public health and “constitutes an obstruction of public rights.” The permanent injunction sought by the plaintiffs seeks to bar all three LNG companies from building and operating facilities at the port.

Texas LNG COO Langtry Meyer attends a Port Isabel City Commission meeting in August 2015 during which the commission voted 3-2 to oppose the construction of LNG export terminals at the Port of Brownsville.
(Photo courtesy the Port Isabel-South Padre Press)

“The bottom line is the Port of Brownsville is a bad steward,” Hockema said.

“That disaster is finally mitigated and now they’re trying to create another disaster,” Hockema said, referring to the Brownsville Ship Channel’s original construction which cut the Bahia Grande off from its water source in the Laguna Madre. Over the course of several decades, the natural wetlands dried up, turning the surrounding region into a dustbowl.

It took the cooperation of over two dozen local, state and federal agencies, as well as an act of Congress before the area was restored, becoming the largest wetlands rehabilitation project in the country in the process.

The city has long been a vocal critic of the industrialization of the port’s lands closest to Port Isabel, sending Hockema to voice its opposition at nearly every public LNG meeting since 2015. The city manager has called into question why such deep-pocketed corporations would choose to locate in a region with a majority-minority, low-income population. “It is environmental racism when you put a plant like this in an area that you think won’t fight back, can’t fight back against you,” he said.

And though the town of 5,000 has limited resources, Hockema said it is prepared to continue the fight, intimating it might file additional litigation in federal court, as well. “We are the David, they are the Goliath,” he said.

BND counsel Daniel Rentfro Jr. declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying BND had not yet been formally served. Once that happens, BND will file an answer to the suit, he said.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

Monitor staff writer Dina Arévalo contributed to this report.