CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) - The Army Corps of Engineers fast-tracked approval of a South Texas barge terminal with no regard for its impact on eight endangered species, a nonprofit claims in Federal Court.
Port Aransas, Texas, the self-styled "Fishing Capital of Texas," hosts more than 20 annual fishing tournaments, according to its Chamber of Commerce.
Two hundred miles southwest of Houston, it boasts five bays, estuaries, marshes and 14,000 acres of seagrass beds protected for research by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department that provide habitat for more than 600 species of saltwater fish.
Lydia Ann Channel, within the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area, is one of the "preeminent locations on earth" to fish for red drum, a feisty shallows-dweller, and has "been repeatedly hailed by Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine as the best place in Texas to paddle and kayak," according to Friends of Lydia Ann Channel, the plaintiff in the Dec. 23 lawsuit.
The nonprofit claims the Corps of Engineers approved the barge terminal project on Jan. 15 this year with no public input. The litigation has been in the works since Sept. 9, when the nonprofit sent the Corps notice that it would be sued for violating the Endangered Species Act. The Act requires claimants to give federal agencies 60 days notice before suing them.
The nonprofit says the Corps approved construction of the barge terminal, which consists of nearly 1.5 miles of "tripod mooring structures" in the middle of Lydia Ann Channel, and advertises that it can accommodate barges carrying tar and asphalt and hazardous materials, in disregard of how a spill would affect the area's five species of endangered sea turtles.
"Turtles swimming or feeding at or just beneath the surface of the water in and around the barge facility are particularly vulnerable to boat and vessel strikes," the complaint states.
Light from the terminal, which runs 24 hours a day, might also harm nesting turtles. And the "only natural wild flock of whooping cranes remaining in the world" winters in the area, and a hazardous spill could be disastrous for the flock of 310, the nonprofit says.
Other endangered species that live near the channel include rufa red knots and piping plovers, two shore birds.
Despite the channel's ecological value, the nonprofit says, the Corps approved the project for Lydia Ann Channel Moorings because the company's agent, Everett Michael Skipper, holds sway with some staff in the Corps' Galveston District.
Skipper used the alias "Mike Edwards" in his email correspondence with the Corps, Friends of Lydia Ann Channel claims in the lawsuit.
The nonprofit says Skipper was indicted on a charge of felony bribery in 2008, for trying to bribe Corpus Christi's fire marshal for a bar's occupancy permit, and pleaded guilty in 2009 to the bribery charge and tampering with government records.
The Corps didn't check Skipper's background when he filed the application under his alias for LAC Mooring, the nonprofit says.
By approving the project, the Corps' regulatory division ignored concerns of officers in its operations branch, who said the terminal "may pose a hazard to navigation given the location is in a bend of the [Gulf Intracoastal Waterway] and in a high-traffic area that is influenced by sea conditions," according to the complaint.
The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway is a 1,050-mile coastal canal from Florida to Brownsville. Lydia Ann Channel is part of it.
The Corps also shrugged off input from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Service, which stressed the need for LAC Moorings to create a spill response plan, the nonprofit claims.
"The USACE approved the project without any public notice or public comment, without any review of alternative locations, and without conducting or requiring any environmental studies or analysis whatsoever," the complaint states.
Friends of Lydia Ann Channel wants the Corps' "letter of permission" for the project voided and declared in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
It is represented by Douglas Kilday with Graves, Doughtery, Hearon and Moody in Austin.
Named as defendants are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; its Commanding General and Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick; the Commanding Officer of its Galveston District, Col. Richard P. Pannell; and Kim McLaughlin, a regulatory division chief at the Galveston District, all in their official capacities.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.