Agencies urge $500,000 for Mineola Nature Preserve repair

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Mineola’s Nature Preserve may undergo a $500,000 restoration project courtesy of a pollution investigation out of Bowie County and a bankruptcy award against the owner of the former Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp.

“That’s huge for us,” said City Manager Mercy Rushing, who noted that the project has drawn support from the city, county and the local delegation to the state legislature. Rushing said the proposal is still subject to final approval after public comment and review, which began last week.

The restoration plan includes planting hardwood trees and preventing the spread of invasive species, drainage work to improve the natural flow of water, and grinding or mulching large wooded debris piles in the southeast portion of the 2,911-acre preserve, according to an executive summary prepared by a collection of state and federal agencies.

Rushing announced to the City Council on Nov. 26 that the Nature Preserve is among five environmental restoration projects eyed for funding through a $21.3 million court award. The case stems from a release of hazardous substances into streams from the former Kerr-McGee wood treating plant at Texarkana in Bowie County, which operated under various ownership for 98 years.

After the Kerr-McGee pollution became evident, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas General Land Office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service struck a settlement with Tronox LLC, parent company of Kerr-McGee, in 2008. The parties agreed to cooperate in an assessment of environmental damage caused by years of pollution into Days Creek, Waggoner Creek and Howard Creek. But in 2009 Tronox filed for bankruptcy and the government agencies took sole control of the assessment, which determined that aquatic life in the streams and at some adjacent sites had been adversely impacted. The bankruptcy court awarded $21.3 million in compensation, according to the executive summary.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the Nature Preserve and several adjacent tracts as having bottomland hardwoods that should be protected. Because of its diverse habitats, the Nature Preserve hosts a rich variety of wildlife, including the potential for protected species similar to those found near the Kerr-McGee site, the summary noted. Those species include birds, fish, reptiles and mussels. “…Improvements in the preserve would increase habitat quality and thereby benefit several species, including protected species,” the summary stated.

In April 2016, Cary Hilliard, chairman of the Sabine-Neches Resource Conservation & Development Area Inc., and Alan Haynes, an early proponent of the Nature Preserve and then vice-chairman of the Sabine-Neches group, lobbied the Mineola City Council to seek a grant through the TCEQ after news hit of the $21.3 million available for restoration work.

“They polluted for a long time,” Hilliard, speaking in 2016, said of the Kerr-McGee plant. “Destroyed a lot of trees and some water and so forth and they paid a $20 million fine .... “The state of Texas decided what we’re going to try to do with it is try to restore some of the things that they destroyed in Bowie County and all the counties around it, which includes Wood and Van Zandt. All of Sabine-Neches (watershed) is in it.”

The City Council ultimately approved the grant application, and a professional grant writer collaborated with Rushing, Hilliard and Haynes in composing the grant.

Along with the Mineola Nature Preserve project, the agencies propose spending $5.9 million on habitat acquisition at Caddo Lake; $9.8 million for Days Creek enhancement and restoration at Cowhorn, Howard, Swampoodle and Waggoner creeks; $2.2 million for Neches River bottomland forest conservation; and $1 million for Talbot Prairie and forest land acquisition.

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