Amid Environmental Concerns, Community Activism Sparks Course-Correction For Port Of Houston’s Project 11

Emily Pickrell, UH Energy Scholar

Clogged supply chains are bad for business – and the economy, contributing to the recent spike in inflation.

But coming up with environmentally-friendly solutions are also complicated.

For the Port of Houston, increasing its capacity has meant taking on an expensive and time-consuming expansion, called Project 11, which will widen and deepen the Port channel to allow for larger container ships that had previously been routed to other ports.

The upgrade will have an undeniable economic benefit, allowing the port to double its capacity to process the 3.5 million containers brought in each year. It will also enable the Port of Houston to handle the growing traffic of massive container ships made possible by the 2016 Panama Canal expansion.

It could also lessen regional air quality issues by increasing the efficiency of vessel movements and reducing potential congestion within the port itself. The expansion will produce an initial 3 percent reduction of nitrogen oxides from vessel emissions. By the end of the project, these reductions should reach 7 percent annually, according to data provided by the Port of Houston.

Yet this massive, multi-year construction project will have an initial negative emissions impact on the surrounding communities. A worst-case evaluation of the dredge work estimated that it could increase regional health expenses by $115 million from the resulting deaths and hospitalizations caused by poor air quality. Indeed, air quality-related mortalities were expected to generate roughly 95% of these costs, according to data from Public Citizen, which has actively followed the port expansion.

Finding a mutually beneficial solution has meant input from state regulators, the local communities and contractors for the Port of Houston.

In these discussions, the local surrounding communities – most of which are historically lower-income historically Black neighborhoods – have been active, ensuring that their concerns were part of the planning process. In the last decade, as the plans for the expansion have progressed, they have formed organizations to better represent their interests, including the Healthy Port Communities Coalition and Achieving Community Tasks Successfully. Public Citizen, a nationally-based consumer rights advocacy group, has also been active in encouraging neighborhood participation.

A top priority for local communities has been the reduction of air pollution that would result from the dredging of the busy 52-mile channel to widen it an additional 170 feet. Dredging a port is by definition a messy and polluting task. Dredging equipment exists that is designed to emit less contaminants, but the Port of Houston did not initially require it on its construction contracts.

Nor were they required to do so, neither by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which reviewed the project to ensure that it met Texas’ commitment to the Clean Air Act, nor by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, which also deemed the plan sufficient to meet its own standards.

The TCEQ acknowledged that the project would result in excess nitrogen oxide emissions but said that the state plan could still absorb this excess amount. It instead recommended that the port favor “contractors who proactively limit air pollutant emissions.” It also encouraged contractors to use lower emission vehicles and equipment whenever possible.

The problem with making higher emissions standards optional is that it shifts the burden in making the case for them to the impacted communities.

“The current state of affairs from a regulatory perspective does not adequately address community concerns and impacts,” said Stephanie Thomas, an air quality researcher with Public Citizen who has been involved in community representation with the Port.

Even so, in this case these neighborhood groups were able to successfully encourage the Port to delay its initial award until a company that would use less-polluting equipment could compete. They did so by attending meetings and speaking regularly with the Port. The Houston Port has identified building a stronger community, addressing stakeholder concerns, and promoting justice as among its key priorities in its 2021 ESG Report.

And while these kinds of targets can sometimes feel like boilerplate, Houston Port commissioners also made a point of talking about the importance of environmental justice in response to the tumultuous summer of 2020. Sharing their priorities with community members also helped talks with local groups.

“It helped open the doors for some of these conversations and the movement we have had for being able to achieve contracts that incorporate things like environmental impact,” Thomas said.

As the Port of Houston began to push its potential contractors for a cleaner solution, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock offered to do a full renovation of one of the dredges and place a scrubber on its equipment that would reduce the emissions significantly. The final contract award included use of efficient equipment that would reduce NOx emissions 38% better than the standard equipment.

“It pushed back the project but we were okay with that because of the emissions reductions that were going to happen because of the upgrades,” said Trae Camble, the director of environmental affairs at the Port of Houston.

This kind of negotiating is also being championed by the Biden administration.

“The rules of engagement on environmental justice have changed,” said Tracy Hester, an environmental law professor at the University of Houston. “Under the Biden Administration, the federal government now puts much more emphasis on bringing disadvantaged communities to the table and on avoiding unfair environmental impacts from governmental action.”

As part of this, Biden established the Justice40 Initiative, which calls for 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal infrastructure investments to be channeled to disadvantaged communities. It made it a priority to increase the benefits and lower the unfair environmental costs that impacted communities have disproportionately shouldered in the past.

And while this initiative came after most of these negotiations, it reflects a new tone and hopefully will help establish a precedent.

It’s a first step to fill the gap between relatively permissive federal and state regulations that still allow disadvantaged communities to bear the lion’s share of the burden in protecting their own interests.

Emily Pickrell is a veteran energy reporter, with more than 12 years of experience covering everything from oil fields to industrial water policy to the latest on Mexican climate change laws. Emily has reported on energy issues from around the U.S., Mexico and the United Kingdom. Prior to journalism, Emily worked as a policy analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office and as an auditor for the international aid organization, CAR


UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.

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