As Port Aransas Oil Project Moves Ahead, a Near Miss Underscores Fears

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Courtesy / Richard Watson

People evacuate the Harbor Island ferry as a liquefied natural gas tanker comes close to hitting the ferry.

PORT ARANSAS – Robert Caughron was one of the last people to drive his vehicle onto the ferry that would shuttle him across a narrow ship channel to Harbor Island. But shortly after a pickup truck had pulled in behind him, he saw a ferry worker come running toward him, shouting to get off the boat. 

An immense ship more than 100 feet long was headed straight toward the ferry landing.

In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Caughron recalled the sound of the ship’s pilot blaring the horn repeatedly as the vessel’s massive hull drew closer to the ferry. 

“It was coming in right at the ferry landing, even to the right of the ferry landing, like it was going to crash into the sea wall,” Caughron said. 

The man behind him backed his truck out, and Caughron followed. Once on-shore, he pulled out his phone and started recording. He captured video of ferry passengers abandoning their vehicles and running for the shore before the ship passed the ferry, narrowly missing it. 

The video he captured has now been shared approximately 2,000 times on Facebook and became a flashpoint in a contentious meeting in Port Aransas on Monday night.

At the meeting, officials with the Port of Corpus Christi spoke to hundreds of people about the Port’s plans to turn Harbor Island into an oil export hub, bringing regular traffic from oil carriers even larger than the ship that caused the ferry evacuation on Monday. 

The meeting grew heated at times, with dozens of people trying to shout down Port CEO Sean Strawbridge. At one point toward the beginning of a question-and-answer session, Strawbridge threatened to leave if it turned into a “shouting match.” 

At the meeting, Beverly Bolner, a Port Aransas City Council member, drew a standing ovation when she told Strawbridge that hundreds of people have written to her asking her to help fight the project. 

“You have said that this is a very small entity of people that really care about this project, and I don’t want you to embarrass yourself even further,” Bolner said. “From now on, I don’t really want to hear you say there’s just this little group of people that are making noise, because that is in fact a lie.” 

Later, attendees had calmed enough to listen to Strawbridge and other Port officials, who stayed answering questions more than an hour past its scheduled end time. 

“The thing that’s really befuddling to me is that the Port has been here 93 years, and you seem to believe that we have a will to damage this community,” Strawbridge said. “Couldn’t be further from the truth.”

(From left) Port of Corpus Christi CEO Sean Strawbridge, planning director Jeff Pollack, environmental planning and compliance director Sarah Garza, and chief of channel development Dan Koesema speak to a crowd in Port Aransas.

Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

(From left) Port of Corpus Christi CEO Sean Strawbridge, Planning Director Jeff Pollack, Environmental Planning and Compliance Director Sarah Garza, and Chief of Channel Development Dan Koesema speak to a crowd in Port Aransas.

A government agency that focuses making the Corpus Christi area more suitable for maritime commerce, the Port’s hope is that Harbor Island can become a destination where immense oil tankers known as Very Large Crude Carriers, or VLCCs, can fully load up with Texas crude oil and depart for ports around the world. 

The ship that nearly struck the ferry on Monday was a liquified natural gas, or LNG, tanker bound for the Cheniere LNG facility in the La Quinta Channel on the northeast side of Corpus Christi Bay, Cheniere officials confirmed Monday. The ship is just over 150 feet wide and nearly 986 long, according to ship information app Marine Traffic. 

 In a statement Monday, Cheniere officials said the ship pilots in control of the vessel, “while operating in coordination with the Coast Guard and the Port Authority,” took a wider turn than normal “due to the placement of another vessel in the channel.” 

“We take concerns from the community and the safe navigation of all vessels very seriously,” the statement read. “We were aware of what happened and we understand the concern.

Strawbridge also addressed the near miss, saying that the Port is investigating the cause, as it does all such incidents in its area. 

VLCCs, the type of ships that would fill up at Harbor Island, are even larger than the LNG ship. At nearly 1,100 feet long and 180 feet wide at their widest point, they’re comparable to Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the second-largest type in the U.S. Navy.

For many attendees, the near miss of the ferry on Monday was simply the latest example of why they don’t want more fully-loaded VLCCs going in and out of the inner harbor. 

“He didn’t hit it, but it was pretty doggone close, and he had two or three tugs assisting him,” Richard Watson, a coastal geologist who was also on the ferry that escaped the near miss, said at the meeting. “That’s a much smaller ship than a VLCC.” 

Currently, VLCCs are able to access the Port of Corpus Christi, but they can’t fill up completely with the channel near Port Aransas at its current depths of 47 feet. 

At the meeting, Dan Koesema, the Port’s chief of channel development, said the first round of dredging part of the channel to 54 feet deep will likely be done by February, with multiple future dredging projects to go on through 2021. 

In March, the Port’s commissioners approved an oil terminal lease with Lone Star Ports, a company owned by investment firm Carlyle Group. That smooths the way for the construction of two berths big enough for two VLCCs to dock and load oil at a rate of up to 80,000 barrels per hour for each ship. 

The Port is also seeking a state permit for a desalination plant on the island that would turn salty ocean water into water suitable for industrial use.

The huge changes to Harbor Island are alarming many of the residents of Port Aransas, a beach and fishing town of 4,000 that relies heavily on tourism that’s sustained by the prolific fish populations that emanate from nearby Redfish Bay and the Lighthouse Lakes. Marine biologists have characterized the area as an ecological hotspot for fish, crabs, shrimp, and sea turtles.

Attendees of a Port of Corpus Christi public meeting in Port Aransas hold signs calling for a proposed oil terminal to be built off-shore and not near the beach town.

Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

Attendees of a Port of Corpus Christi public meeting in Port Aransas hold signs calling for the use of an off-shore terminal.

Most of those who oppose the Port’s plans, including members of the Port Aransas Conservancy, aren’t necessarily opposed to oil export in general. Where they’re united is in favor of that shipment being offshore in deeper at a floating buoy connected to an oil pipeline. That way, they say that any oil spilled from the tankers might wind up on the barrier island beaches, but not in the ecologically rich salt marshes they fear will end up being contaminated.

However, Strawbridge called on-shore operations “much more environmentally friendly, and much more safe” because of tighter air quality regulations and easier operating conditions while ships are docked in safe harbor. 

“If you’re off-shore and something happens, it is going to be much harder to contain it and much harder to respond to it,” Strawbridge said. 

The Port’s plans to build the oil terminal are proceeding even though the agency is also lending its support to a proposal by Texas-based Phillips 66 to build an offshore oil buoy. At the meeting, Strawbridge said the buoy is located in a way that would still allow the Port to generate revenue from the project. 

One audience member asked why the Port can’t simply go with the Phillips 66 idea and abandon its plans for Harbor Island. 

“There is a wall of crude coming our way,” Strawbridge said. “How do we know that? Because we look at those pipelines. … There’s steel going into the ground today that’s pointed our way.” 

 

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