The idea of expanding the Mobile shipping channel is gaining support among elected officials despite a number of concerns raised by coastal residents and local environmental groups.
This week the Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District stopped taking public comments on the draft version of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) that is part of an ongoing larger re-evaluation of the Mobile Harbor.
That study is being conducted to evaluate the economic feasibility and environmental impact of deepening and widening Mobile’s shipping channel. The tentatively selected plan would deepen the 36-mile channel to an overall depth of 50 feet and widen a three-mile stretch in the lower part of the bay, among other expansions.
As forecast today, the price tag of more than $387 million would be split between the state and federal governments, but the Corps projects the expanded channel to generate annual net benefits of $34 million over a 50-year point after its completion.
When the report is finalized in late 2019, it will go before Congress for funding consideration, though Alabama’s congressional delegation has already submitted a joint letter of support for the project. Local and state leaders are already getting behind the project as well.
The Mobile Harbor is estimated to have a “$22.4 billion per year” statewide economic impact, and the Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA) has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into its infrastructure in recent years. However, a number of coastal homeowners and environmental groups aren’t quite sold.
While many support the idea of some kind of harbor expansion, a number of concerns have been raised about the study, which concludes the proposed expansion would cause “no major impacts” or “loss of resources.”
Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, says she doesn’t see how that’s possible for such an expansive and invasive project in the middle of a sensitive ecosystem.
“You’re not just deepening, you’re going into virgin territory that’s never been trenched before,” Callaway said. “It’s the very first time sunlight will ever see this bottom area, and then you’re widening it for three miles. There just isn’t any possibility of this having zero impacts.”
In its written comments to the Corps, Baykeeper noted the tentative proposal would make this “the only channel expansion project of similar size in the country that has not identified any impacts or mitigation through its environmental impact statement.”
Callaway also pointed out that finding no impacts means neither the Corps nor the ASPA would have to include mitigation efforts to offset those impacts in the final project — setting it apart from other recent harbor projects in the Southeast.
For example, an expansion of the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor overseen by the Corps in 2017 was initially projected to affect 324 acres of wetlands. As a result, the South Carolina Ports Authority pledged $25 million toward preserving 665 acres of wetlands and other mitigation efforts.
Asked about impacts in other harbors, an email from the Corps said “every system is different” and went on to reiterate that the modeling used in the SEIS indicates “minimal changes” to water quality and aquatic resources would occur from the proposed channel expansion.
“This is likely because Mobile Bay is a dynamic environment that naturally experiences significant natural [shifts] in things like salinity and dissolved oxygen,” it reads. “As a result, the aquatic resources are already acclimated to large shifts in water quality due to natural factors.”
However, it’s not just the rosy outlook that has the local environmental community worried. Laura Jackson, a program and grant coordinator for Baykeeper, has been reviewing the draft SEIS since it was published in July, and she believes many parts of it are “inadequate.”
“Even though it’s 4,000 pages, a lot of that is background. It sounds like a lot, but that doesn’t mean it is,” she added. “There’s a lot of data gaps, missing information and other issues.”
One specifically was the draft SEIS using a single year (2010) as the “basis of a number of environmental impact analyses” to determine how the project might affect water quality and sediment transport during the dredging of the channel.
The SEIS indicates 2010 is an average year for those areas, but Baykeeper has suggested it would be more beneficial and accurate to use “a three-year simulation” for that type of modeling to ensure varied conditions such as prolonged drought are accounted for.
Callaway said a prolonged drought after the channel is deepened could likely mean greater saltwater intrusion into the bay — impacting seagrasses, fish communities and an oyster population that has been in a historic slump for the past decade.
In its official public comments to the Corps, Baykeeper also warns if its concerns with the current evaluation of the proposed project aren’t addressed, “there will be legal ramifications.”
“Our goal is not to stop this project, it’s to ensure that every project we do in coastal Alabama must incorporate the true impacts on the environment, the community and our economy — not one versus the other,” Callaway said. “This study falls short of ensuring those are all protected.”
Despite the concerns, the Corps is standing by the evaluation procedures it used over the past two years as part of the ongoing harbor evaluation. It noted that once completed, the evaluation will have been reviewed by the public, Corps reviewers outside of the Mobile District and independent peers in the applicable scientific communities.
The harbor evaluation will also be subjected to a legal and policy review on the federal level and, according to the Corps, all models used in the SEIS had to be pre-approved by the National Ecosystem Restoration Planning Center of Expertise.