Cutline: Attorney Michael Truncale makes the case for Savage Inland Marine during Orange County commissioners’ court Tuesday in Orange.

Photo by Dave Rogers

By Dave Rogers

For The Record

A change in who is doing business and how they do it caused Orange County commissioners Tuesday to rescind a largely ceremonial 2016 resolution against a large Neches River barge operation near Bridge City and Bessie Heights Marsh.

Utah-owned Savage Inland Marine acquired the fleeting and towing assets of CLM Towing and Thousand Foot Cut Marine Services in May 2016.

It responded to Commissioners’ Court June 14, 2016 resolution with six months of intensive public relations efforts topped by Tuesday’s 30-minute presentation led by Beaumont attorney Michael Truncale. It featured seven “plain folks” speaking in support of Savage as a booster for the area economy, a steward of the environment, and at worst, better for the environment than the alternatives.

Jody Crump, Commissioner Precinct 4, had a different set of numbers.

“I’ve gotten many, many emails and text messages and it’s about a 50-1 ratio of individuals that say they want Bessie Heights protected. And they want the fleeting facility gone today,” Crump said.

Crump was the only “nay” in a 3-1 Tuesday vote to rescind last year’s resolution, essentially leaving Orange County leadership without a public stance on the issue.

But that’s not how Truncale saw it.

“This is an opportunity for the court to stand up for economic development in Orange County,” he said.

Legally, there’s nothing in a county’s resolution that can impact barge traffic along the Neches River, County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton reminded.

Under current law, barges can park anywhere along the river without a permit for up to 21 days, Carlton said. But Savage Inland Marine is seeking a permit from the General Land Office for its operations.

Truncale, in fact, said Savage and the GLO had come to an agreement for a permit Tuesday, but it could not be confirmed at press time.

Brandon Barchus, a top-rated natural resources lawyer from Houston and lead attorney for the Citizens for the Preservation of Bessie Heights Marsh, was the only one to speak publicly against Savage Inland Marine, which currently has about 25 barges docked in the FINA oxbow across from the Total and Huntsman plants.

Tom Bell, veteran advertising executive and now executive director of Beaumont Main Street, accompanied Barchus to commissioners’ court. He said he was representing the Coastal Conservation Association, a coastal sports fishing group.

“We’re not wacky environmentalists trying to save the snail darter,” Bell said after the meeting adjourned.

“We do know that there’s a delicate balance. We think there’s a lot of other places that people could be operating.”

According to Joshua Knichel, general manager for Savage Inland Marine, the barges are docked because of a bottleneck at the terminals up and down the Neches. Plans are to anchor as many as 50 barges at a time at the FINA oxbow to a floating dock that the company says prevents damage to the marshland that abuts the river.

But opponents have been buying full-page ads in area newspapers that trumpet a website, www.savebessieheights.com, with tabs to sign a petition and contact your representative.

Carlton and commissioners Johnny Trahan and John Gothia voted for rescinding last year’s resolution against the barge berthing. Commissioner Barry Burton, Precinct 2, abstained citing a possible conflict of interest.

In other action Tuesday, commissioners discussed agreements to designate the Triangle Area Network for primary care services for the Orange County Indigent Health Care Program and renew a contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston for specialized care for those in the Orange County Indigent Health Care Program.

They also OK’d a $1,800 budget transfer to purchase a 70-inch television for the 260th District Court. The TV will be used to present evidence during trials and replaces an old projection system that met a surprising end during a recent court proceeding.

“We were in the middle of a trial and it literally started smoking,” said Mike Marion, assistant county attorney.