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Lavaca Bay Settlement Between U.S., Texas and ALCOA Provides Area Restoration Projects and Additional Cleanup

Release Date: 12/10/2004
Contact Information: For more information contact the Office of External Affairs at (214) 665-2200.

The Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of the Interior, Texas Attorney General's Office, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department today announced two settlement agreements with Alcoa Inc. and Alcoa World Alumina L.L.C. that address mercury-contaminated sediments in Lavaca Bay, ongoing unpermitted discharges of mercury into Lavaca Bay, and soil contamination at the Point Comfort/Lavaca Bay Superfund Site.

Under the agreements being lodged today with the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Alcoa will undertake a variety of restoration actions to compensate for natural resource losses resulting from the site's contamination. Alcoa has already spent approximately $40 million conducting early response actions and will spend approximately $11.4 million to complete the remaining cleanup actions. Alcoa will also pay costs incurred by the governmental agencies in evaluating the Alcoa/Point Comfort Superfund Site and determining appropriate cleanup and restoration actions.

"These settlements will significantly improve Lavaca Bay's habitat for decades to come," said Thomas L. Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "It is gratifying to see the government's efforts to protect our environment for America's future generations and to work with Alcoa to mitigate the levels of harmful pollutants in our land and water."

Sediments in Lavaca Bay were contaminated with mercury from past operations at Alcoa's Point Comfort facility. Alcoa Inc. owned the Point Comfort Plant from 1948 until 1994, when it was purchased by Alcoa World Alumina L.L.C. For several years during its period of ownership, Alcoa operated a chlorine-alkali processing unit at the plant and discharged wastewater containing mercury into Lavaca Bay. Other areas around the facility were contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as a result of the processing of coal tar at the facility.

In the early 1970s, mercury levels in oysters in Lavaca Bay were significantly elevated and the Texas Department of Health closed parts of the bay to the harvesting of oysters. In 1988, the Department issued a closure order prohibiting the taking of finfish and crabs for consumption from a portion of Lavaca and Cox Bays, based on mercury levels found in these resources. Following early cleanup actions initiated by Alcoa in 1998, TDH reopened Cox Bay in January 2000, after additional sampling showed mercury levels in finfish and crabs had decreased to levels acceptable for human consumption. The closure order remains in effect for a portion of Lavaca Bay.

Under the cleanup consent decree, Alcoa will dredge mercury-contaminated sediments, operate a ground water recovery system at the former chlorine-alkali plant, cap portions of the plant and monitor sediments and fish to confirm the recovery of sediment and fish tissue to acceptable levels. In the past few years, Alcoa has paid more than $1 million for cleanup costs incurred by EPA and TCEQ. As part of today's settlement, Alcoa also will pay past costs of $404,726 to the United States and $100,000 to Texas. The companies also agreed to pay the governments' future costs.

"Because of cooperative efforts by state and federal agencies, and Alcoa's willingness to alleviate early-identified risks through removal action, we are already well on our way to completing the work to be done in Lavaca Bay," said EPA Region 6 Administrator Richard Greene. "For example, design work was completed as part of consent decree negotiations, so field work for remedial action can begin as soon as the court enters the decree."

"Through the continued clean up of the site and the natural resource construction projects, both the priceless ecological balance and the recreational opportunities in Lavaca Bay are being restored. We are pleased to have played a lead role in both of these efforts, and will continue to work with our partners through these Consent Decrees to ensure all areas of the bay are fully restored," said TCEQ Executive Director Glenn Shankle.

Under the natural resource damages consent decree, Alcoa will implement restoration actions to offset both ecological injuries and impacts to recreational fishing in the bay. To restore ecological losses, Alcoa will cause the transfer of 729 acres of land to be preserved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, create 70 acres of intertidal salt marsh within the refuge, and create 11 acres of new oyster reef habitat in Lavaca Bay.

"The collaborative settlement efforts resulting in this land transfer and the creation of an intertidal salt marsh will be of tremendous benefit to all species that inhabit Aransas National Wildlife Refuge," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director H. Dale Hall. "This is an extremely beneficial outcome for everyone."

To offset recreational fishing losses due to the closure, Alcoa will construct new fishing piers at Six Mile Park, Point Comfort Park, and at the Bayfront Peninsula in Point Comfort; replace an existing auxiliary boat ramp and construct a new timber dock at Six Mile Park; modify an existing jetty at Magnolia Beach; and construct new timber docks at Six Mile Park and at Lighthouse Beach. These actions will improve access to and enhance recreational fishing opportunities in the bay. The piers and docks will be engineered to achieve a 30-year project life span on the central Texas coast and the improved sites will remain open and free to the public for at least 15 years. Alcoa's project commitments include appropriate funding to local entities to allow the public structures to be maintained and insured against loss during that period.

Alcoa will act in cooperation and under the oversight of NOAA, DOI, TPWD, TCEQ and TPWD in carrying out these projects under the settlement. Alcoa will also provide funds at settlement to cover future oversight costs and to reimburse past assessment and restoration planning costs incurred by these natural resource trustee agencies. The restoration actions included in this settlement 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 the trustees, Alcoa, and the local community.

"This is a great example of government and a company working together to investigate and plan for clean-up and restoration of the environment simultaneously," said David M. Kennedy, Director of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration. "We consider this to be a national model for achieving full and efficient restoration of our nation's coastal resources."

"This is a fair settlement that will 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," said Larry McKinney, Ph.D., Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coastal fisheries director. "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 this settlement does the best possible job on that score."

The United States will receive public comment on the proposed settlements for a period of 30 days. The settlement agreements will take effect upon signature and entry by the U. S. District Court judge, after any comments received have been considered.

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