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Texas regulators on Thursday issued an environmental permit for the Port of Corpus Christi to build what could become the state’s first seawater desalination plant, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may refuse. to accept it.
The state permit for a desalination plant on Harbor Island represents the culmination of years of business strategy, political maneuvering and legal efforts on behalf of the port, which wants to build a large-scale facility to convert seawater from the Gulf of Mexico into fresh water. Construction of the marine desalination plant is expected to cost at least half a billion dollars; an estimate provided to the Texas Water Development Board puts the cost at over $ 800 million.
Environmental groups have been fighting the project for four years on the grounds that the plant’s wastewater could damage sensitive coastal ecosystems.
Now the port will also have to contend with the EPA, which may refuse to recognize the state permit because it does not comply with the Clean Water Act. The federal agency is concerned that the Texas permit may not be sufficient to protect aquatic life and water quality, according to letters obtained from the Texas Tribune, and that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has not sent permission to the EPA for federal review.
The controversy centers on the type of permit required: EPA believes the desalination plant needs an “important” environmental permit – which requires EPA review – while TCEQ says the facility should be considered a minor project , which does not require a federal review.
“If the TCEQ issues problems [the permit] without responding to the EPA … the EPA’s position will be that it is not a valid issue [permit]”Wrote Earthea Nance, Dallas-based EPA Region 6 Regional Administrator, in a September 2 letter to TCEQ Commissioner Jon Niermann. Some experts have speculated that the EPA may sue the TCEQ to determine whether Texas is legally required to consult the EPA about such seawater desalination permits.
TCEQ commissioners on Thursday appeared to dismiss EPA concerns. Commissioner Bobby Janecka said he considered the federal agency’s objections, but called them “outside our decision window” on whether to issue a permit.
The Harbor Island plant is one of five marine desalination plants proposed for Corpus Christi Bay, all vying to be the first to be built in Texas. Two are proposed by the Port of Corpus Domini and two by the city of Corpus Domini. (The port and the city have soured each other as partners in desalination.) The fifth plant was proposed by a now bankrupt plastics company, which has since been taken over by Corpus Christi Polymers.
Demand for water in the Corpus Christi region’s water planning area, driven by a growing population and boom in manufacturing and petrochemical plants that need water to cool their plants, is expected to outstrip supply by more than 31,000 acre feet, or about 10 billion gallons, by the end of the decade if new water sources are not guaranteed, according to the state water plan.
The water planning area – made up of 11 counties in the southern Texas Nueces River basin along the coast – predicts that 70% of its new water resources will have to come from desalination plants by 2030.
“The potential for water independence from these types of facilities is very great,” said Manish Kumar, an associate professor of environmental and chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, who has worked on and advised on desalination projects. “The significance is enormous, because we have the coast, we have energy and in many places we need high quality water.”
While Texas already has more than 50 plants desalinating brackish groundwater into freshwater, according to a state database, seawater desalination is much more technically difficult, energy-intensive, and expensive to achieve on a large scale because the ocean water is much saltier than brackish groundwater.
Seawater plants offer even fewer benefits: marine desalination plants are capable of converting about 40% to 50% of seawater to fresh water, while groundwater desalination plants convert closer to the 80%, said Kumar. The remaining water, made saltier by removing most of the now fresh water, is discharged as waste.
The port’s proposed facility for Harbor Island would produce up to 50 million gallons of drinking water per day. The city of Corpus Christi currently uses around 72 million gallons per day. The facility will discharge up to 96 million gallons per day of wastewater into the Corpus Christi Ship Channel between Harbor Island and Port Aransas, according to the port’s permit application.
Errol Summerlin, co-founder of the Coastal Alliance to Protect the Environment, an environmental group opposed to the plant, said that now that Texas has approved the permit, he hopes the EPA will “come in and essentially assert its authority,” and will not recognize [the permit]He said the TCEQ Commissioners issued the permit “without taking into consideration the EPA’s objections, above all, that the whole process was flawed.”
The EPA began protesting the plan last year, arguing that Texas had not allowed the federal agency to review the plan to dump the salty wastewater into the canal, which is connected to Corpus Christi Bay.
The EPA and Texas often disagree over air quality, a politically controversial issue due to the state’s reluctance to address the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. But Matthew Dobbins, an environmental litigation attorney and partner at Vinson & Elkins, said he was surprised to see the EPA threaten such a water action.
“Interestingly, the EPA has said it is willing to drop the hammer and declare any permits issued here invalid,” Dobbins said. “It was the EPA that took a position that they only have historically [taken] in the context of air permitting. “
He said that under President Joe Biden, the EPA is “taking a much closer look at licensing decisions than they may have done in the past.”
Federal regulators were so concerned about TCEQ’s review of the permit application that last September the EPA revoked Texas authority to independently review wastewater desalination permits without the help of the EPA.
Two weeks ago, TCEQ commissioners delayed a decision on the permit to give the agency more time to assess the EPA’s position. Commissioners and staff alike characterized the EPA’s concerns as a last-minute intervention in a four-year authorization process.
TCEQ attorney Kathy Humphreys said the EPA’s objection was “premature” and TCEQ Commissioner Emily Lindley said the EPA appeared to have “intervened very late in the process”.
Douglas Allison, a Corpus Christi-based attorney representing the port, indicated at a TCEQ meeting earlier this month that the port would seek to resolve issues with the EPA directly.
“[We] we will see if there is a way to thread this needle where, in the end, the permit is issued in good standing with TCEQ and EPA, “Allison said at a TCEQ meeting earlier this month.” We believe we must move forward. “
Craig Bennett, an attorney representing the Port Aransas Conservancy who opposes the plant, said he was concerned that the TCEQ set a bad precedent for allowing marine desalination plants.
The port was unable to provide the exact location for unloading into the canal, he said. An environmental consultant for the port stated during an administrative judicial proceeding that the exact location of the sewage discharge could not be determined until after the works began; the port permit application provides an approximate location approximately 300 feet off the south coast of Harbor Island.
Bennett says exact location is the most important factor in determining any potential environmental damage. Discharging wastewater into the canal, a sensitive ecosystem that depends on a certain mix of fresh and salt water, could create an imbalance, Bennett said. Excessive salinity can destroy ecosystems by killing aquatic plants and animals, as well as reducing nutrients in the water, which affects plant productivity.
“We are not against desalination,” said Bennett, who is also a partner at the Jackson Walker law firm in Austin. “There’s no reason they can’t dump the discharge in the gulf.”
The port stated in its application for authorization that any changes in salinity in the bay due to discharge into the channel will be insignificant compared to historical variations. An EPA analysis of salinity in the bay, however, recommends that salinity should be less than some of those historical variations to reduce stress on plants, animals, and marine life.
Kumar, the engineering professor at UT Austin, said the best option would likely be to dump the wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico, where it can dissipate more quickly into a larger body of water. But, he said, when there are no other alternatives for fresh water and environmental issues are adequately mitigated, seawater desalination is beneficial.
“We are living in such a difficult time with water shortages,” Kumar said. “You have to balance the risks properly so that you don’t create problems, but the technology works and it’s the high-quality water that you get from it. If you need a constant water supply, [marine desalination] it’s good.”
Disclosure: Jackson Walker and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial advocates play no role in Tribune journalism. Find a full list of them here.
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