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State will decide on a proposed Plaquemines coal terminal soon

27th August 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Late this week, Plaquemines Parish residents should learn whether the state’s Department of Natural Resources will give RAM Terminals, LLC a Coastal Use Permit to run a coal-export facility next to a planned Mississippi River diversion in Myrtle Grove. If that permit and several more are approved, Kentucky-based RAM­ACO — a coal reserve and infrastructure development group—hopes to build its terminal by next year. The RAM operation would add to two coal-export facilities nearby, run by Kinder Morgan and Oiltanking, respectively.

Meanwhile, plans for half a dozen coal-export terminals in Texas and the Pacific Northwest have been scrapped. “Three different projects in Texas are no longer moving, with one in Corpus Christi canceled last week,” Al Armen­dariz, Texas-based senior representative at the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign said. In the Pacific Northwest, three projects have been shelved in the last year or so. “Very good work has been done in the Pacific Northwest educating the public about the dangers of dust and water pollution from coal and the nuisance of coal trains,” he said.

Coal is a raw deal for consumers, especially those living near terminals, Armendariz said. Dust blows off rail cars and moves from company yards into local waterways. And while coal terminals are known threats to neighbors, these port projects typically qualify for tax-exempt state bonds, he said.

In May, Oregon environmentalists cheered the cancellation of a Port of St. Helens terminal, which could have shipped as much as 30 million tons of coal yearly. “Kinder Morgan decided to scrap the project because of zoning issues but we’ll continue to look for other opportunities where they make sense,” company spokesman Joe Hollier in Texas said last week. KM, one of the nation’s biggest U.S. coal-terminal operators, owns facilities in Texas, Louisiana, Virginia and Lake Michigan.

“We’re pleased that terminals have been canceled in the Pacific Northwest and Texas but our work is not done,” Armendariz said. “Existing export facilities in several states, including Texas and Louisiana, are expanding.”

Hillary Corgey, healthy ports organizer at Public Citizen Texas, explained the situation there. “Two coal terminals planned in Corpus Christi had the kibosh put on them, with only one—Millennium Bulk Logistics/Ambre Energy—left in Corpus,” she said. “But in the Houston metropolitan area, the Jacintoport Bulk Terminal is proposed, Kinder Morgan’s existing Houston Deepwater Terminal is expanding, and Kinder’s Houston Bulk Terminal is more than doubling capacity.” Houston is one of ten U.S. ports that will be dredged and fully prepared for the Panama Canal’s widening and deepening by 2015, she noted.

Companies have tended to blame market conditions for terminal cancellations, “Coal prices are volatile, and prices have fallen in recent years so the economics of building new terminals no longer work for some companies,” Armendariz said. Central Appalachian, thermal coal prices had a sharp run-up to nearly $140 a short ton in 2008 because of supply disruptions in China and Australia, but have since eased and stood at $53 a ton last week. Nonetheless, exports to Asian buyers are often negotiated at values above the prevailing market. And Asian demand, though not as robust as expected at the start of the decade, remains significant, with India importing at record levels. China’s purchases from other nations are expected to slow, however.

The coal industry didn’t expect much resistance to its planned Gulf Coast terminals, Nancy Nusser with Public Citizen Texas said last week. “However, it’s becoming clear that there will be a fight in the Gulf,” she said. In two hearings on RAM’s Louisiana Coastal Use Permit application in mid-August—held in Davant and Belle Chasse–50 people and 120 people turned out, respectively. “We’re forming the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition to work on halting a proposed increase in coal exports out of the Gulf Coast,” Nusser said. Members so far include the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Net­work, Louisiana Environ­mental Action Network, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Plaquemines Residents for Environmental Integrity and Public Citizen Texas.

Armendariz said he hopes Louisiana residents will pressure local officials to resist coal terminals. Concerns expressed in early 2012 about the RAM terminal by Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority have eased, and the agency now says its planned river diversion at Myrtle Grove—for the purpose of building coastland—can co-exist with the coal facility. But Armendariz said that coal, on both the supply and demand sides, isn’t compatible with coastal rebuilding. Coal-fired power plants, no matter where they are, emit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, rising sea levels and super storms. “There is no environmental benefit to reducing coal’s use in the United States and then exporting coal to Asia,” he said. “It’s important that we keep it in the ground.”

To what extent can residents stop coal terminals? “Citizen activism can influence the cancellation of coal terminals but won’t stop permits for a proposal that legitimately passed required permit tests,” Richard Ellmyer, chair of the North Portland Coal Committee, said last week. “Citizen activism didn’t directly stop the three, canceled coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest. The marketplace was the determining factor.” Activism influences the market, however, and to a lesser extent the political system, he said. The North Portland Coal Committee opposes exports to Asia from the Pacific Northwest.

Analysts at the World Bank and investment bank Goldman Sachs have turned gloomy about coal, Ellymer said. The World Bank this summer decided to move away from financing coal-power generation projects. And Goldman Sachs in an August report said coal demand will be hurt by environmental regulations, competition from gas and renewable energy, and gains in energy efficiency. Goldman predicted that seaborne demand for coal could peak in 2020. In Ellymer’s view, China, Russia and Australia are better situated than the United States to supply Asian consumers.

Ellymer offered some advice to residents who want to fight coal terminals. “Citizens typically have little luck pressing the Army Corps of Engineers or local permitting authorities to deny permits,” he said. “Coal mining and sale and transport to foreign buyers are political issues beyond the scope and pay grade of bureaucrats following the rules and orders from above,” he said. For Louisiana residents, the two entities with the greatest influence on coal terminals are Governor Bobby Jindal’s office and the Obama Admin­istration, he said. “That’s where I would focus my energy.”

But Ellymer said the jury is still out on how the Obama Admin­istration will act on climate change issues, including transport of coal to foreign buyers.

Echoing Armendariz, Ellymer said exporting coal that we don’t want to burn in the United States will come back to haunt us. “For instance, scientists in the Pacific Northwest have identified increasing, airborne toxins from Asian coal plants as contaminating local fish,” he said.

Meanwhile in Myrtle Grove, Kinder Morgan’s International Marine Terminals are in the third phase of a $190 million expansion, to be completed next year. Total capacity should grow from 10 million short tons to 20 million. Last year, the terminal exported 3.8 million tons of coal, however.

As Hillary Corgey in Texas noted, Kinder is expanding its deepwater and bulk coal terminals in Houston. And the company is enlarging its Lake Michigan pet coke terminal in Whiting, Indiana.

“All of our expansions and projects are currently on time to meet the requirements of our long-term customer commitments,” Hollier at Kinder Morgan said last week. “We’re committed to being an environmentally responsible operator, and we meet or exceed all state and federal regulations in our efforts to suppress dust emissions.” Kinder does everything it can to keep its dust from impacting surrounding communities, he said.

Residents of Myrtle Grove and nearby Ironton, however, said they see dust blowing off piles of uncovered coal at Kinder’s IMT, and they suspect that asthma and allergies in their communities are related to coal. Across the river and slightly south of the IMT is another coal exporter, United Bulk Terminals in Davant, owned by Oiltanking.

Elsewhere in southeast Louisi­ana, “Convent Marine in St. James Parish is expanding its coal terminal capacity from four million tons per year to eight million tons,” said Devin Martin, conservation coordinator with the Sierra Club Delta Chapter. He said it’s relatively easy to obtain government permits for an expansion as opposed to a new operation. “Burnside in Ascension Parish is a seven-million-ton per year facility but it isn’t finished yet,” he said. “Both of these terminals have rail access while the ones in Plaquemines do not.”

Plaquemines residents fear that rails ending now at the CHS grain elevator slightly north of Ironton will be extended south to the coal terminals, however, bringing long, dusty trains to the parish.

Since last fall, “we’ve gathered nearly 600 signatures on Sierra Club petitions against RAM’s Myrtle Grove terminal,” Martin said last week. “We sent out two alerts, one last October and one this month. We’re sending another alert to collect a few more signatures before comments on the company’s Coastal Use Permit application end Monday.” Any duplicate signatures will be removed.

“Alerts have gone out to all our Louisiana members,” Martin said. “We have the most members in Greater New Orleans but signers have been from across the state, including Monroe, Lake Charles and other areas not directly impacted by the terminal.”

The state will accept written comments on RAM’s Coastal Use Permit application until 4:30 p.m. Central Time on Monday, August 26, Patrick Courreges, spokesman for Louisiana’s Dept. of Natural Resources, said last week. “A decision on RAM’s permit will be made by August 30 and will be publicized the day it’s finalized,” he said. To submit comments to DNR, email nicole.dandur­and@la.gov by Mon­day afternoon and include RAM’s application-number P20120190.

RAM’s application to operate also awaits a Water Quality Certification from the state’s Dept. of Environmental Quality; a U.S. Army Corps 404 Permit, authorizing construction in wetlands; and a Compensatory Mitigation Plan for wetlands from federal and state agencies.

This article originally published in the August 26, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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