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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Environmentalists See a Disaster in Waiting

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Louisiana illegally granted a construction permit for a coal and petroleum coke plant next to a wetlands restoration project on the Mississippi River, the Sierra Club claims in court.

The Sierra Club and two other environmental sued the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources in Plaquemines Parish Court.

Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, is the tongue of land created by sedimentation at the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was devastated by the BP oil spill.

The coke plant is planned for 602 acres on a protected coastal zone in Myrtle Grove, 30 miles from New Orleans, next to a sediment diversion project for restoration of wetlands.

The state issued the permit to RAM Terminals, which is to build and run the operation. RAM is not a party to the lawsuit.

Joined by co-plaintiffs the Gulf Restoration Network and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the Sierra Club claims Department of Natural Resources did not consider alternative sites, or fully weigh the "considerable, adverse environmental impacts of the project against its questionable economic benefits."

The plant is to store and ship coal and petroleum coke, which will be stored in large, uncovered piles and moved from storage containers to shipping containers via conveyor belt, according to the lawsuit.

The site is near two other coal and petroleum coke export terminals that "line the Mississippi River" in Plaquemines Parish and use similar uncovered storage systems and conveyors, the environmentalists say in the complaint.

During the public comment period of Aug. 14-15, the plaintiffs say, they brought aerial photos that showed the coal and petroleum coke terminals already there are responsible for "extensive pollution" of the Mississippi River.

Coal, petroleum coke and their residues blow and fall from conveyor belts into the river and drain into the river when barges wash, the groups say.

They cited EPA documents stating that coal and petroleum coke pile runoff may contain high concentrations of copper, mercury, iron, nickel and other toxins.

During Hurricane Isaac, the proposed storage site flooded, as did the sites of the two other coal and petroleum coke terminals.

The plaintiffs claim that they provided documents during public comment showing that the two existing facilities produce "plumes of coal particles that, in periods of elevated winds, extend over residential areas of Plaquemines Parish."

They claim the plant would harm the 150 residents of Ironton, an African-American community 1 mile downriver from the proposed site. They cite a research paper from Whatcom Docs, a group of more than 180 physicians who studied the health impacts of coal terminals on nearby residents and found that pulmonary and cardiac diseases, cancer and safety risks increase for nearby communities, with children and the elderly at highest risk.

"Furthermore, the Whatcom Docs found that exposure to coal dust and the toxic heavy metals coal contains, such as mercury, arsenic and lead, are linked to cancer, birth defects, heart disease, and increased asthma and lung disease in children," the lawsuit states.

The groups say plant would be close to the Mid Barataria Sediment Diversion Project, whose drainage channel is to pass through the same tract of land as the proposed facility. Pollution from the coke plant would hinder restoration of wetlands, as coal and petroleum coke sediment contain high levels of sulfides which hurt the roots of marsh plants that bind marshlands together.

The EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expressed concern that the plant could result in "reduced environmental benefits" from the wetlands restoration project, according to the complaint.

Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority initially advised that "there is the possibility that the projects cannot exist together," the groups claim.

However, in an about face at the end of July, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority entered into an agreement ostensibly imposing limits on the project's operations, designed to mitigate adverse effects on the diversion. But neither the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority nor RAM offered a "basis, scientific or otherwise," to support the agreement's terms," the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs say that they and others who spoke during the public comment period cited "an array of recent, publicly available reports that question the assumption of a stable, long-term export market for domestic coal."

They claim the Department of Natural Resources failed to adequately analyze the adverse environmental impacts, failed to demonstrate that the impacts have been avoided to the maximum extent possible, failed to address public health concerns or balance them against the purported economic benefits, and failed to consider alternative sites that would offer more protection to the environment.

They ask the court to cancel the permit and order the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a sufficient environmental impact assessment.

The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources was closed Monday.

The environmentalists' lead counsel is Robert Wiygul, with Waltzer, Wiygul & Garside, of Ocean Springs, Miss.

Follow @SabrinaCanfiel2
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