THE BLOG
10/02/2012 03:00 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Louisiana Coal Hubs Ignite Human Health and Coastal Restoration Concerns

In Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, tensions are rising over coal export terminals that provide jobs but also threaten human health and could interfere with coastal restoration. Armstrong Energy in Missouri hopes to open a company-backed RAM coal terminal in Alliance, La. on the west bank of the lower Mississippi River in 2014. But residents of Ironton, located just south of RAM's site, say they don't want their air quality to get any worse than it is now. 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 doesn't fully tap its brown coal resources. Yet south Louisiana accounts for over a fifth of the nation's coal exports and is preparing to ship much more. Houston-based Kinder Morgan has expanded its International Marine Terminal or IMT, situated 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 the area's coal export capacity is geared to 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.

Last Thursday, the Plaquemines Parish Council, which governs the Plaquemines Port, Harbor & Terminal District, voted to rescind, but was unable to overturn, an April port-district resolution that supported issuing bonds for 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 nearby in Alliance and the Conoco Phillips refinery slightly north of that. We're cleaning our homes and furniture more often and changing our air conditioning filters more frequently. We're not sitting outside as much as we did." The IMT 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 away to make room 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 Hurricane 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 ten families took buyouts and ended up scattering to various places, including other parishes."

She noted, "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 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. "The company will need a DEQ pollutant discharge elimination system, or LPDES, water permit, along with a Coastal Use Permit from the 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 fifty years," he explained. The project would incorporate dredging to build land.

On Sept. 21, The Sierra Club, the Christian Ministers Missionary Baptist Association of Plaquemines and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network challenged DEQ's approval of a Clean Air Act permit for RAM Terminals in a lawsuit filed in 19th Judicial District Court.in Baton Rouge.

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 nonprofit, 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 Sept. 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. end

This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Oct. 1, 2012 edition.