Public opposition to Plaquemines Parish coal terminals grows

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Aug. 19, 2013 edition.)

Louisiana, a major exporter of coal from other states, could ship far more of that fossil fuel once the Panama Canal is widened and deepened in 2015. Next year, RAM Terminals, LLC hopes to build a coal export facility in Plaquemines Parish in Myrtle Grove near Ironton--30 miles south of New Orleans. As RAM rounds up its government permits, Ironton residents fear for their health. Environmentalists worry about the terminal's proximity to a planned Mississippi River diversion for building land.

But at Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, concerns about the terminal have eased from a year ago. And the project is supported by the parish since it might create 150 jobs.

RAM Terminals, LLC was formed in 2011 by Kentucky-based RAMACO, a coal reserve and infrastructure-development group. Last week, Louisiana's Dept. of Natural Resources held public meetings in Davant Wednesday and Belle Chasse Thursday to discuss RAM's application for a Coastal Use Permit from DNR.

"The terminal will only add to respiratory problems we already have from a grain elevator and two oil refineries nearby," fifth-generation Ironton resident Audrey Trufant Salvant said last week. "We're concerned about a railroad we hear they want to run along the Mississippi and through the back of our town to carry coal. Trains could be running constantly. Right now the rail ends at the CHS grain elevator north of us."

In addition to the RAM terminal, Salvant and her neighbors have heard two more coal export facilities could be built nearby by other companies. Braithwaite is one of the sites under consideration. Salvant acknowledged that riverside industries provide local jobs. "But these facilities have to be maintained so that they aren't choking us," she said. "And too many of them close together isn't good."

Driving down Highway 23, Salvant can see piles of coal at the International Marine Terminals two and a half miles south of Ironton. IMT, owned by Kinder Morgan, is in the process of expanding. "The coal isn't covered," Salvant said. "Ariel photos show coal dust blowing and seeping into the river. Last August during Hurricane Isaac, coal-contaminated floodwater spread from the terminals to other properties."

Talk is that the mostly African American Ironton, with 150 residents, might be moved from the vicinity of the RAM terminal though the company has denied such plans. "Recently, we're hearing it could be south," Salvant said. "We certainly don't want to move south and be more vulnerable to hurricanes and coastal erosion."

The meeting Wednesday in Davant on the East Bank wasn't easy for Ironton residents on the West Bank to reach. "We'd have to take a ferry to get there," Salvant said. "So we demanded that the Dept. of Natural Resources hold a West Bank meeting on the permit, and it did in Belle Chasse Thursday night."

Davant is the site of coal exporter United Bulk Terminals, owned by Oiltanking. UBT is across the river and slightly south of the International Marine Terminals coal facility.

The Dept. of Natural Resources heard public comments on RAM's Coastal Use Permit application Wednesday at Percy Griffin Community Center in Davant and Thursday at the Belle Chasse Auditorium. About fifty people turned out for the Davant hearing, according to Scott Eustis, coastal wetland specialist at the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans Thursday.

One concern discussed in Davant was the possibility that coal trains will run south below where the rails end now at the CHS grain elevator. "These trains could be up to 100 cars long, carrying uncovered coal down through Plaquemines, filling the air with dust, tying up vehicular traffic and making residents late for work and school," Eustis said.

Thursday's Belle Chasse permit meeting attracted 120 people, including Ironton and Myrtle Grove residents who complained of asthma and allergies from existing riverside facilities, Nancy Nusser of the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition said Friday. "People lined up to take the podium, and no one from the public spoke in favor of the terminal during the four-hour hearing," she said.

As for its coal-export ranking, Louisiana is the nation's second-largest shipper after Virginia. In data released by the National Mining Association in May, the Pelican State accounted for 20 percent of U.S. coal exports in 2011.

But the rationale for more coal export facilities was questioned at the Davant meeting, especially given pessimism about China's imports, Eustis said. In May, Goldman Sachs predicted China's imports will decline as that nation's production of coal, nuclear energy and wind power increases. Deutsche Bank said this spring that China's coal imports could soften because its urbanizing interior is near coal mines and away from coastal ports.

Stan Mathes, Plaquemines Parish economic development director, said last week that local coal terminals are gearing up for a wider, deeper Panama Canal by 2015 and hope to meet Chinese and Indian demand. He noted that some of Indonesia's coal exports are low quality and no longer acceptable to China.

As for India, its coal imports continue to grow, according to official Indian statistics.

Meanwhile, RAM's application to operate awaits a Water Quality Certification from Louisiana's Dept. of Environmental Quality and a Compensatory Mitigation Plan, in addition to the Coastal Use Permit from the DNR, according to Ricky Boyett, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman in New Orleans, last week. A compensatory mitigation plan is a wetland plan that's acceptable to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"RAM must first obtain a Coastal Use Permit from the state and a 404 Permit from the Army Corps before they may begin construction," Louisiana DEQ spokesman Tim Beckstrom said last week. "They will need a water permit from us but those other permits must be in place first." DEQ gave RAM an air-quality permit last September.

A 404 Permit, authorizing construction in wetlands, is issued by the Army Corps under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

In an April 30, 2012 letter to New Orleans engineers Lanier and Associates--which was hired by RAM Terminals in 2011--Jerome Zeringue, executive director of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, questioned whether RAM's terminal could exist with the state's planned river diversion at Myrtle Grove. He raised concerns about ship movement, barge fleeting, river piloting and the terminal's impact on river sediments.

"Since then, CPRA has modeled potential impacts, and analyzed and addressed issues," Zeringue said last week. "We now believe the two projects can co-exist. We will have enough room to operate near the proposed coal facility. We'll be able to build and use the river diversion to create land."

In May 2011, RAM acquired 602 acres on the lower Mississippi River to develop its export terminal, with fleeting operations. Because of CPRA's concerns that the coal terminal could affect its planned Mid Barataria Sediment Diversion, a Memorandum of Agreement was drawn up identifying conditions under which RAM's facility can function.

"This MOA is in the process of being executed by the state and RAM Terminals" with respect to RAM's Coastal Use Permit application, Zeringue said last week.

Under the MOA, RAM wouldn't use its terminal during a "Peak Operating Period," which can be declared by the state when the Mississippi River is flowing at or above 600,000 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey station at Baton Rouge. During a declared POK, CPRA would capture as much sediment as quickly as possible to minimize the period's length. A POK wouldn't exceed fifteen days in a row, and no more than five of these peak periods could be declared in a calendar year.

When asked if possible air and water pollution from coal might impact the Myrtle Grove diversion, Zeringue said that will be a DEQ permitting issue. "DEQ should be able address any pollution concerns along the river," he said. "CPRA's function with the diversion is to help rebuild and maintain our coastline."

Zeringue provided a timeline for work on the diversion. "It's in the design process, as we progress through the permitting process--all of which could take two years," he said. "By summer 2015, the diversion's design plans, a required environmental impact study involving federal agencies, and permitting should be complete. After that, construction may take another two years. From the most optimistic projection, the soonest the diversion can begin operating is probably five years from now."

The Myrtle Grove diversion is expected to create 33 square miles of wetlands in Barataria Basin, Zeringue said. "It will function as the Mississippi River did when it built land, before significant investments were made to channelize the river after the great flood of 1927," he said.

Members of the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition or CGCC fear the RAM terminal will impact the river diversion, and they hope the state denies the company its remaining permits. CGCC includes the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Plaquemines Residents for Environmental Integrity and Public Citizen Texas. CGCC is engaged in a multi-state campaign to stop expansion of coal exports that pollute the air, disrupt freshwater and marine environments and emit greenhouse gases. end