Scientist Warns of Dredging Mercury-Tainted Superfund Site to Build Texas Oil Export Terminal

Toxicologist Urges U.S. Army Corps to Study Possible Fish Contamination and Risks to Human Health of Dredging in Point Comfort, TX, to Allow $1 Billion Oil Terminal

Media contacts: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574 or

Diane Wilson, San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, (361) 218-2353 or

VICTORIA, TX – To make way for a massive crude oil export terminal on the Gulf Coast midway between Houston and Corpus Christi, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to dredge through a Superfund site contaminated with mercury – prompting a warning of “serious risks” from a scientist.

Dr. Jessica Dutton, Associate Professor of Biology at Texas State University, wrote a report to the Army Corps that cautions that digging up the mercury-laced sediments beside a former aluminum smelting factory in Point Comfort to expand an oil terminal could contaminate fish and endanger the struggling local fishing community.

“My opinion is that this new information demonstrates there will very likely be long-term adverse impacts to water quality, biota, fisheries, and human health within Lavaca Bay and Matagorda Bay due to the mobilization of mercury from the proposed Matagorda Bay dredging project,” wrote Dr. Dutton, a marine toxicologist.  “I recommend that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revise its sampling plan and undertake a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate the serious risks of this project on the environment and human health.”

Dr. Dutton’s report was submitted today by a coalition of environmental and fishing groups challenging a proposal by the Max Midstream company to vastly expand the Seahawk Terminal in Point Comfort, transforming it from a small facility today into a $1 billion crude oil export hub that could accommodate much larger oil tankers.

The groups challenging the dredging project are San Antonio Estuarine Bay Waterkeeper, The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“Not only is the health of our bay and our community in jeopardy, the dredging will destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of fishing families,” said Diane Wilson, San Antonio Estuarine Bay Waterkeeper. “We refuse to  be the stepchild of industry!”

To allow “Suezmax” -size oil tankers, which are as long as football fields and can carry about 1 million barrels of oil, the Army Corps is proposing to dredge up 21 million cubic yards of sediment and widen and deepen 27 miles of the Matagorda Bay shipping channel, leading from the Port of Calhoun in Point Comfort into the Gulf of Mexico. The digging and dumping of the dredge material would destroy more than 800 acres of oyster reefs and smother over 1,000 acres of seagrasses.

The project would also include dredging through an EPA Superfund site in a shipping channel contaminated with mercury by an Alcoa aluminum smelting plant beside the water in Point Comfort that was built in 1948 and closed in 1980. Since 1988, an area of Lavaca Bay has been closed to fishing because of high levels of mercury in finfish and crabs. Mercury can cause brain damage in people who consume contaminated fish, and local residents are worried about buried mercury being stirred up by the dredging.

“Mercury hotspots were found in sediment adjacent to the ship channel last summer,” notes Lauren Fleer, Engineer with the Environmental Integrity Project. “The Army Corps must honor their duty to protect human health and the environment and conduct a rigorous sediment evaluation before moving forward.”

Erin Gaines, Senior Attorney for Earthjustice, said. “The Max Midstream proposal not only dredges through a contaminated Superfund site, it would also lock in decades of more carbon pollution by establishing a major oil export hub. New information about mercury contamination and the project’s scale requires a full assessment of these risks. Approving a massive fossil fuel export facility is wholly inconsistent with the Biden administration’s commitment to climate, public health and environmental justice.”

Earthjustice and allies sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on October 25, 2021, requesting additional study of the possible impacts of the dredging project in what is called a “Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.”

The Army Corps performed an initial Environmental Impact Statement in 2019 for the dredging of the channel for a much smaller oil terminal project, but that did not capture the scale of the current proposal by Max Midstream or include an examination of the most recent data on mercury contamination in the sediment.

The new data includes a letter that Alcoa sent EPA a letter in August 2021 with new sampling results that showed continuing mercury contamination. The company collected 54 sediment samples at various depths adjacent to the proposed dredge area within the Superfund site and found that 10 of those samples had a mercury concentration higher than the level that EPA deems to be an “unacceptable risk” to the health of fish and humans.

“Mercury exposure has been shown to result in several deleterious health effects in fish, including, but not limited to, reduced gill and liver function, altered behavior, neurotoxic effects, cardiovascular effects, reduced fecundity and hatching success, pericardial edema, reduced heart rate, physical deformities, and increased mortality during early development,” Dr. Dutton wrote in her report to the Army Corps.

The Army Corps “needs to evaluate the risk to human health from consuming mercury contaminated seafood and potential economic impact on commercial and recreational fisheries in the area,” Dr. Dutton wrote.

Chrystal Beasley, Texas Gulf Coast Energy Campaigner at Earthworks said: “It’s to the benefit of the community’s health and economy that Max Midstream halt dredging activities until the supplemental environmental impact statement process is complete. Studies have shown mercury is transported and spread through practices such as dredging that cause the resuspension of mercury-contaminated particles. Dredging is likely to increase the mercury concentrations in fish above levels safe for human consumption.”

Matagorda Bay and Port Lavaca, across the bay from Point Comfort, historically had a thriving fishing, shrimping, and oystering industry that has sharply declined in part due to industrial pollution. Despite the setbacks, the fishing community is fighting hard to survive.

That survival could be jeopardized, however, by the dredging and the massive oil export terminal project, which would increase the risk of oil spills and dump 14 million cubic yards of dredging spoils in areas that are important aquatic and fisheries habitats.

For a copy of biologist Dr. Jessica Dutton’s report, click here.

For a copy of the Earthjustice/Environmental Integrity Project letter on Feb. 16 to the Army Corps accompanying Dr. Dutton’s report, click here.

For a copy of the Oct. 25 Earthjustice letter to EPA requesting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, click here.

For a copy of the Army Corps proposal, click here.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 20-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.

San Antonio Bay Waterkeeper is a grassroots organization committed to preserving and protecting the health of San Antonio, Lavaca, and Matagorda Bays.

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.

Earthworks is dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while seeking sustainable solutions.