Savage Inland Marine makes improvements despite opposition
Published 8:10 am Wednesday, December 14, 2016
From staff reports
Orange County Commissioner Jody Crump joined the Citizens for the Preservation of Bessie Heights and other concerned individuals at a press conference Tuesday denouncing a barge fleeting operation in the FINA oxbow of the Neches River, which these opponents contend is irresponsible and constitutes an ongoing threat to the precarious ecosystem in the Bessie Heights marshland. They have called for the “reckless operation, which is presently located on public waters in an environmentally sensitive area, to be disbanded,” according to a press release from the group opposing the project.
The Bessie Heights wetlands is a protected area. It is well-known as a fishing and hunting destination that brings millions of dollars in economic impact to the region every year, and serves as both a birding habitat and as a natural watershed. During the March floods earlier this year, the marshland was credited with absorbing much of the overflow and mitigating damage to area residents and businesses.
“Over $20 million of our tax dollars have already gone into restoration efforts for the Bessie Heights marshland,” said Commissioner Crump of Precinct 4. “The Orange County Commissioners’ Court, the State Representative and the State Senator have all issued resolutions and letters opposing this unpermitted operation on public waters, and those letters are all still current and in effect.”
The group’s opposition is directed at Savage Inland Marine, which took control of the “unpermitted operation” in May. A field inspection conducted by the General Land Office the following month in June found clear evidence of environmental damage in the fleeting area under Savage’s stewardship. For example, the GLO states there was 2,380 square feet of plant life, which provides critical habitat for wildlife “damaged along the shoreline … by barges pushing into the marsh,” according to the opposing group.
The GLO report also found that Savage was “using a larger area than proposed” and frequently the barges under their control were “closer than 30 feet to the shoreline” despite assurances from the company, the press release stated.
Finally, Savage’s spud barges break constantly according to eyewitness reports. When the spuds break, the untethered barges damage the marsh, according to a press release from the group opposing the project.
“The State of Texas owns these waters for the use and benefit of all of its citizens,” said Brandon Barchus of the Citizens for the Preservation of Bessie Heights. “Out of state companies like Savage who come in here, illegally squat on our waters, damage our marshes and break our laws must leave immediately.”
Savage Inland Marine was also represented at the press conference and recently held a public forum to answer questions and concerns for the project.
After acquiring barge fleeting assets and boats in May, Savage Inland Marine quickly implemented policies and practices to keep barges away from the shoreline. The shoreline damage noted by the General Land Office in June was the result of earlier activity by other carriers prior to Savage Inland Marine taking over fleeting operations in the oxbow. Since that time, there has been significant improvement to the condition of the shoreline within the fleeting area. For the past six months, no additional damage has occurred because of Savage Inland Marine’s commitment to keeping barges away from the shoreline. In the absence of the FINA Fleet, companies would still need to park their barges somewhere while waiting for dock availability and there are no laws prohibiting barges from being temporarily tied up against the shore.
“It’s disappointing to see continued inaccurate claims by those who disagree with our proposal for safe, responsible and regulated barge fleeting in Orange County that supports the transportation needs of area refining and petrochemical companies while protecting the environment,” said Josh Knichel, General Manager of Savage Inland Marine. “With growing demand for secure locations to temporarily park barges on the Neches River, and existing fleeting areas in the Golden Triangle operating at or near capacity, Savage Inland Marine’s FINA Fleet serves a vital need while keeping barges away from the shoreline, reducing shore erosion and preserving a clear channel for passing ships. The project will also generate millions of dollars for the local economy and Texas schools,” said Knichel.
An environmental assessment by Environmental Resources Management, a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety and risk consulting services, concluded that the FINA Fleet “will not significantly interfere with navigation, or natural coastal processes, and will act as surge protection from passing ships; thus reducing nearby shore erosion.”
An economic assessment of Savage Inland Marine’s facilities and operations by Austin-based Impact DataSource projects $7.7 million in additional revenues for local taxing districts over the next 10 years, with net benefits of $3.8 million. The assessment also estimates 306 direct and indirect jobs over 10 years with salaries totaling $199 million. Additionally, approval by the Texas General Land Office could result in surface lease payments of tens of thousands of dollars annually, adding to the state’s Permanent School Fund and benefitting Texas students.
State, county and community leaders; area organizations and residents; and many in the marine industry have expressed support for Savage Inland Marine and the proposed FINA Fleet. At a December 8 Public Forum held at Lamar State College – Orange, Savage and Savage Inland Marine representatives provided information for more than 80 guests, received input from the audience and answered questions. The vast majority of public comments at the meeting were favorable toward the project, according to a press release from Savage Services.