Filed Under:  Local, News

Neighbors monitor land purchase by Plaquemines port

30th December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

After a decades-long push to buy land, the Plaquemines Port, Harbor and Terminal District—the Mississippi River’s closest shipping area to the Gulf—purchased 550 acres near Myrtle Grove in December. That sounds like a savvy move, especially since the widening and deepening of the Panama Canal should add to the river’s traffic in 2015. Further development, however, raises issues with residents, environmentalists and others who want more input in the area’s industrialization.

The port’s executive director, Sandy Sanders, says he expects peaceful coexistence with neighbors. But efforts to extend a rail line to the port, along with increases in property taxes to pay for the port’s land, lucrative contracts to consultants and impacts on coastal restoration projects are all concerns.

As for its size, the port district includes everything within parish borders, according to Dale Benoit, a local publisher assisting with the port’s marketing.

Plans to extend the New Orleans and Gulf Coast Railway line to the port facility and expected coal dust from trains heading down to export terminals are worries for Audrey Salvant. She’s a fifth-generation resident of Ironton, an African-American community that’s just north of Myrtle Grove. As it is, Ironton residents are bracing for a new RAM coal terminal, a decision that preceded the port’s land purchase, and are struggling with pollution from existing coal hubs nearby—Kinder Morgan’s IMT and Oiltanking’s UBT.

Salvant asked port director Sanders in a meeting this fall if the railroad would be rerouted around Ironton, but he couldn’t say. “They keep plans hush-hush and low under the radar,” she said. “They aren’t holding a bunch of town hall meetings like they should.” She said Ironton won’t stand by idly while the rail line and other developments are built. “We plan to react before it’s too late,” she said.

Historic Ironton is within a state-designated industrial zone along the river. “But zoning should not disregard human life,” Salvant said. “How would the port commissioners feel if they lived where we are?”

Plaquemines Parish leaders hope to extend and relocate the rail line, which now ends at the CHS grain terminal in Alliance. The first phase would be an almost three-mile extension to two planned facilities near Myrtle Grove—the RAM coal terminal and a NOLA Oil tank yard. In a second phase, the line would continue down another three miles to the land acquired by Plaquemines Port and would reach the IMT site.

Other communities, including Gretna in Jefferson Parish and Belle Chasse in Plaquemines, aren’t keen on the prospect of long trains delaying vehicles. “You’ve got these old tracks going right through towns, and if they do expand the rail, they’ll need to reroute it,” Devin Martin, conservation coordinator at the Sierra Club’s Delta Chapter, said last week.

Financing for the port property, done through an increase in the millage rate, has raised hackles. “Some homeowners may not be greatly affected by the millage increase because of the value of their property and also homestead exemptions,” Martin said. “But companies owning lots of land nearby could see their property taxes increase substantially while the mill increase is in effect,” he said.

The state’s constitution allows state-chartered ports to levy up to five mills, approved by a vote of a port authority, Benoit said. “The governing authority here decided to levy three mills,” he said. “Bonds authorized by the state bond commission were sold to cover the $9.5 million purchase price, plus closing costs, and will be paid back in three to four years through the 3-mill tax collected by the port,” he said. The vote to impose the millage was 7-1 in favor, with one person absent among nine port commissioners at an October 21 meeting. Council­man Burghart Turner of District 6 voted against it.

Following the port’s decision, businesses will pay an additional $90 annually for every $200,000 of assessed property value, and homeowners will pay $37.50 for each $200,000 of assessed value after any homestead exemptions.

“We’re the largest property owner and property taxpayer in Plaquemines Parish,” said Melissa Ory, spokeswoman for the Phillips 66 Alliance Refinery in Belle Chasse. “Chevron is next.” How much Phillips 66 will pay in additional taxes isn’t known yet. “The actual duration of the tax implementation, although scheduled to last no longer than four and a half to five years, is still to be determined,” she said. Chevron, meanwhile, declined to comment on an expected rise in its property taxes.

The port district purchased an area known as the Citrus Lands, with 1.5 miles of river frontage, at the appraised value of $9.5 million from the Bank of Paris—which had sought more for the site.

Salvant and Martin said more meetings need to be held to allow all parties to participate in decisions. “I’m not aware of any community meetings or open houses about the millage,” port spokes­man Benoit said. However, “the port is a public agency so all of their meetings and agendas are posted and open to the public,” he added.

Martin said expensive studies funded by the parish and possible irregularities in those contracts are worrisome. Trident Holdings, Inc. in Nova Scotia was awarded two contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each, one for a port master-plan study and another to implement that plan. Trident issued its master plan report in 2010 under the first contract, reiterating much of the work already done by the parish. A master-plan implementation contract with Trident was narrowly approved by the Parish Council in July 2011 and extended this year.

An executive at Burk-Kleinpeter Inc., New Orleans engineers active in Plaquemines, helped the parish negotiate the Trident contracts and then became a high-paid Trident subcontractor to implement the port’s master plan. The subcontractor, Bruce Badon, Burk-Kleinpeter’s executive vice president, didn’t respond to requests for comment in late December.

Following a port ordinance in July 2012, the port is now separate from the parish. “The port wanted more autonomy, wanted to be stand alone,”.Stan Mathes, Plaquemines Parish economic development director said this month. “Most U.S. ports, including New Orleans, are stand alone.” The Plaquemines port plans to handle bulk cargo, including bulk liquids. “There’s coal, there could be chemicals, vegetable oil, fish oil, bulk petroleum and gasoline,” Mathes said. “Imported oil from Mexico and Venezuela are processed now at the Phillips 66 refinery in Alliance.”

Environmentalists are concerned about the impact of riverfront industries on the Myrtle Grove sediment diversion, a future restoration project included in the state’s Coastal Master Plan. One worry is that coal runoff will pollute the site. In late October, area residents and wetlands advocates sued the state’s Department of Natural Resources for approving a coastal use permit for RAM’s proposed coal terminal in Myrtle Grove.

In addition to air and water pollution and higher taxes, too much development worries residents. “We don’t need to have the biggest port in the Gulf or in Louisiana,” Warren Lawrence, former president of the Myrtle Grove Home­owner’s Assoc­iation, said this month. He wants the area to remain a sportsman’s paradise and a quiet place to enjoy nature with his family, without industrial sprawl.

At one time, the Port of Plaque-mines was envisioned as a big, containerized-cargo facility but that idea waned after the parish was hammered by Katrina and ot­her hurricanes in recent years.

This article originally published in the December 30, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.