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Plaquemines residents worry about nearby coal terminals

1st October 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

A drive to ramp up coal and petcoke exports from Plaquemines Parish makes several communities already surrounded by industry nervous. Armstrong Coal-backed RAM Terminals hopes to open a facility in Alliance on the west bank of the Mississippi in 2014. But Ironton residents, who live just south of RAM’s site, say their air quality is already suffering. Ironton lies about 25 miles below New Orleans.

Coal and petcoke are among Louisiana’s top exports, with combined sales of $1.5 billion a year. Louisiana produces petcoke—an alternative to coal in power generation—from oil refining, but has little coal. Yet south Louisiana already accounts for over a fifth of the nation’s coal exports and is preparing to ship much more. The recently expanded International Marine Terminal or IMT, operated by Kinder Morgan, is located two miles south of Ironton near Myrtle Grove. IMT is a 24-hour facility, storing coal and petcoke on the ground.

United Bulk Terminal, owned by Bulk Handling USA, is across the river from IMT and a few miles south in Davant. Shipping coal and petcoke, UBT is the biggest, dry-bulk export facility on the Gulf, and plans to upgrade its site over the next two years.

Stan Mathes, Plaquemines Parish economic director, said growth in coal export capacity here is geared towards the Panama Canal’s expansion by 2014 and greater trade with Asia. In recent years, the Gulf has become a big coal exporter because U.S. East Coast ports are congested and West Coast ports are expensive to reach by rail. “The shortest route isn’t necessarily the cheapest rout in shipping,” Mathes said.

Critics say one reason coal terminals are locating in Plaquemines is that Louisiana doesn’t enforce its environmental laws as rigorously as many other states with ocean ports.

On Thursday evening, the Plaquemines Parish Council, which governs the Plaquemines Port, Harbor and Terminal District, voted on, but was unable to rescind an April 26 port district resolution that supports issuing bonds for the benefit of RAM Terminals. That left support in place for RAM.

South Louisiana’s growth as a coal hub doesn’t sit well with Audrey Trufant Salvant, a fifth-generation resident of Ironton. She said “years ago, they built the IMT coal terminal south of us in Myrtle Grove. We also have the CHS Grain elevator in nearby Alliance and the Conoco Phillips refinery slightly north of that in Alliance. We’re cleaning our homes and furniture more often, changing our air conditioning filters more frequently and not sitting outside as much as we did.” The IMT terminal opened in 1978.

“Dust is everywhere, and we’ve have more childhood asthma and adult bronchitis in this area than we did in the past,” she said.

What’s more, Salvant fears Ironton residents might be pressured to move to make way for the RAM terminal. “Rumor is they want to relocate this community where my family has lived since the early 1800s,” she said. Ironton, which was reduced to 49 families after Katrina, “is 100 percent African-American, and our hunter and fisher ancestors were here 200 years ago. The first grave in my family’s cemetery is from 1803.”

Salvant said “before IMT opened its Myrtle Grove coal terminal, they moved the small community of Wood Park that I knew as a kid. Those 10 families took buyouts and ended up scattering to various places, including other parishes.” She said “in Ironton’s case, it sounds as if they might offer to move the whole community. But we’re not going to stand for that.”

Salvant said “African-American communities in south Louisiana seem to be targeted over and over again for these industrial sites, and we’re getting the worst from them.”

Last week, New Orleans-based Charles Wesley, business development director with RAM Terminals LLC in St. Louis, said “RAM won’t ask the community to relocate. We own our land at the site and there is no need for people to move.” He said the facility will create 300 jobs dung construction and 120 to 150 full-time jobs.

The terminal will be built with a system that sprays mist during hot, dry conditions to damp down coal-pile dust, Wesley said.

“We will be a big taxpayer and some of those tax dollars will be used for coastal restoration. We’re working closely with Garrett Graves’ office at the state’s Coastal Protection Restoration Authority and cooperating in the state’s restoration plans.” The terminal is to be situated at a spot where the state and the Army Corps of Engineers hope to build a river diversion to restore marshland.

At the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, coastal wetland specialist Scott Eustice questioned why the site was selected by RAM. “Not only is it in an area where residents are already exposed to multiple sources of pollution—from the IMT coal terminal, an oil refinery and a grain terminal—but RAM wants to build its terminal at the precise location where the Corps is planning a diversion,” he said. Eustice said the company’s negotiations with authorities, to comply with the needs of the diversion, could slow coastal restoration in the parish.

Eustice said Hurricane Isaac showed the threats that coal terminals pose for Plaquemines. “Floodwater overtopped everything during the storm, treatment pumps were bypassed and there was a severe lack of containment. Water containing coal ash was pumped into surrounding areas.” He noted that coal mixed with water leaves a telltale red stain.

RAM is rounding up permits for its export facility now. Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Jean Kelly said the company was issued an air permit on July 9, effective immediately. “It will need a DEQ pollutant discharge elimination system or LPDES water permit, along with a Coastal Use Permit from Dept. of Natural Resources,” she said. “They can’t start construction until they have all permits.”

RAM also needs a permit from the Army Corps, Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said in New Orleans last week. If the state and the Corps do issue permits for the facility, “RAM will need to develop a wetland mitigation plan that is acceptable to our resource agencies, which include the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” he said.

Boyett said a feasibility study is underway for the proposed river diversion. “The project, known as the Medium Diversion at Myrtle Grove with Dedicated Dredging, is slated for the lower Mississippi River in the Barataria Basin,” he said. “It is being studied in partnership with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana.” Water and sediment would be moved into the basin for restoration. “The intent of the diversion is to deposit and retain river resources to maintain a minimum 33,880 acres of marshland over the next 50 years,” he explained.

The project would incorporate dredging to build land.

As for recent growth in the state’s coal exports, David Dismukes, energy studies professor at Louisi­ana State University, said “Louisi­ana has oil and natural gas, and we as a nation have oil, gas and coal. But other countries don’t have all these energy options.”

China’s thirst for foreign coal has slackened recently but European demand for U.S. coal has been red hot this year. Wesley said “coal at the RAM Terminal could come from any producing area in this country, and it could be shipped to customers anywhere, most likely those in Europe, Asia and South America.”

Salvant in Ironton said of the growth in coal terminals “we need the jobs, but not enough to sacrifice our health and our lives.” She said a few Ironton residents are employed at the IMT coal facility in Mrytle Grove.

Salvant and her neighbors have reason to worry. An April report by Sightline Institute, a Seattle, Wa.-based environmental nonproft, said “publicly available, satellite imagery of Kinder Morgan’s port site at Myrtle Grove shows plumes of what appears to be coal dust, or possibly petroleum coke, contaminating the Mississippi River at several points in and around the ship loading facilities.”

In a September 6 statement, the Gulf Restoration Network said Plaquemines’ two major coal terminals flooded during Isaac, pouring polluted runoff into surrounding water, wetlands and farm land. GRN Deputy Director Aaron Viles said plans to expand those two terminals and to build a RAM Terminal in the vicinity should be scrapped.

This article was originally published in the October 1, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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