Mercury contamination released from Alcoa Inc.’s Point Comfort manufacturing facility in the late 1960’s contaminated areas of Lavaca Bay near the facility and caused ecological injury. A discrete portion of Lavaca Bay was closed to the taking of finfish and crabs for consumption in April 1988 (Fishing Closure) after mercury levels in these resources were found to exceed levels considered safe for human consumption. The size of the closed area was reduced in 2000.
March 28, federal and state leaders presented Alcoa with an award for its active and cooperative role in resolving the site’s contamination problems and in restoring Lavaca Bay.
“This is a great example of government and a responsible company working together to investigate and plan for clean up and restoration of the environment simultaneously,” said William Corso, deputy assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “We consider this to be a national model for achieving full and efficient restoration of our nation’s coastal resources.”
“Over the last decade, developing and implementing sound environmental solutions for Lavaca Bay has been the focus for many in Calhoun County,” said Ron Weddell, Alcoa remediation manager. “Through cooperative relationships, Alcoa employees, local citizens, state and federal agencies and scientists have worked together to determine the best cleanup solutions and recreational uses for the bay.”
Alcoa has spent approximately $110 million to undertake a suite of projects in and around the bay to affect clean-up and compensate for natural resource losses resulting from the site contamination. The implementation of these projects represent the culmination of 15 years of cooperative work, under the auspices of several agreements, focused on cleaning up the site as well as restoring resources and enhancing recreational fishing opportunities to offset the impacts of the contamination in the Bay.
Alcoa’s agreement to implement the restoration projects is embodied in a settlement of its natural resource damages liability for the site approved in 2005. Alcoa also paid costs incurred by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas General Land Office, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in evaluating the site and in determining appropriate restoration actions.
“It’s important to seize every opportunity to restore and enhance fish and wildlife habitat whenever and wherever we get the chance, since so much of it has been lost or damaged in Texas, and parties on all sides have worked hard to see that the settlement did the best possible job on that score,” said Larry McKinney, Ph.D., TPWD coastal fisheries director. “In this case, we were able to provide new recreational facilities and opportunities for anglers and boaters in Lavaca Bay, as well as restored marshes and oyster reefs that are important for fish, shellfish, birds and other wildlife.”
To restore ecological losses, Alcoa will transfer 729 acres of land to be preserved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, created 70 acres of inter-tidal salt marsh within the Refuge, and created 11 acres of new oyster reef habitat in Lavaca Bay. To offset recreational fishing losses, Alcoa constructed new fishing piers at Six Mile Park, Point Comfort Park and the bay-front peninsula in Port Lavaca. It also replaced an existing auxiliary boat ramp, built docks and modified an existing jetty to improve access to and enhance recreational fishing opportunities in the bay. Although the bulk of restoration activities are completed, there are still continuing efforts to restore the bay.
“The benefits of collaborating parties are most apparent and have resulted in the creation and restoration of saltwater marsh habitats that are important to all of the resident species at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Everyone involved worked diligently towards a common goal insuring a successful resolution of the ecological impacts. As a result, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, its wild inhabitants and the public have all benefited. I commend everyone involved for their efforts to derive a solution that will benefit wildlife and people,” said Benjamin N. Tuggle, Ph.D., USFWS southwest regional director.
For several years spanning the late 1960s to early 1970s Alcoa operated a chlorine-alkali processing unit at its Point Comfort plant that resulted in discharges of mercury into Lavaca Bay via pathways such as wastewater streams, groundwater and runoff. Other areas around the facility were contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as a result of processing coal tar at the facility.
“Texans expect us to work together and get things done, and that’s just what we did here in Lavaca Bay,” said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas GLO. “The results of this effort speak for themselves.”
The restoration projects undertaken by Alcoa were identified through a natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) process for the site that was undertaken cooperatively with Alcoa. That cooperative assessment process permitted comprehensive coverage of all NRDA issues associated with the site and led to good working relationships between federal/state partners, Alcoa, and the local community.
– Texas Saltwater Fishing Guide