A lawsuit filed Tuesday morning by a coalition of environmental groups says the United Bulk Terminal, a coal export plant in Plaquemines Parish, is polluting the Mississippi River and threatening communities, and wetlands, nearby.
With a number of new coal plants scheduled to come online in the next few years, the lawsuit seeks to bring the plant into compliance with the law, and up to the standards of other states.
Just a few miles down the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, wedged between citrus orchards, tiny hamlets and deteriorating wetlands, are two massive industrial operations — the United Bulk Terminals Davant coal export terminal and the Kinder Morgan International Marine terminal.
Coal, and petroleum coke, are big business for south Louisiana — the New Orleans region is second in the nation in coal exports. The material is shipped by barge and train from throughout the United States and stored at the terminals in huge open-air mounds, before being shipped out again to countries around the world.
“A coal export terminal serves to take coal from different parts of the United States that’s too dirty to burn in the Unites States, or too uneconomical to burn, and export it to countries with fewer regulations than the United States,” says Scott Eustis, coastal wetlands specialist for the Gulf Restoration Network.
“Petroleum coke is a byproduct, a waste product, of the refining process,” Eustis says. “You know, we have many refineries along the Mississippi River corridor, and when they put the crude oil in, they heat it up, and the different products are distributed by density on that tower. Petroleum coke is the sludgy stuff at the bottom. It is also a black, fine particulate material just like coal.”
Eustis’ Gulf Restoration Network is an environmental advocacy organization that has been documenting the impact of the Plaquemines coal terminals for two years. He says the uncovered mountains of coal and petroleum dust tower over the flat wetlands and tiny local communities in the plants’ shadow. Even mild winds can blow the material over the surrounding homes and marshes, and blanket them in toxic dust. Then there’s spillage from the conveyor belt that moves the material from the huge piles to the boats.
“In particular, the United Bulk facility has been operating since the ‘60s, and I think that conveyor belt is from 1965. It has not been improved, and because of that they lose a lot of material in the river — so much that it creates a pile of petroleum waste in the Mississippi River,” Eustis says.
“This is an environmental crime, and we have been flying for two years, documenting repeated instances over and over again, reporting it to the Coast Guard and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.”
They have been flying overhead because the area is nearly inaccessible otherwise. We went up to take a look.
From the air the wintertime marshes of South Louisiana are brown and faded green, criss-crossed with canals… and mostly just open water.
There’s brisk traffic on the river, massive boats headed up to New Orleans and down to the Gulf of Mexico. The coal plants sit perched on the west bank of the river, a startling black against the backdrop of wetlands and water.
“This facility right here is United Bulk,” Eustis says as we circle overhead. “These are their treatment ponds on the back end of the facility. You can see the discoloration in the water — that’s from the iron and sulfur in the material.”
Tuesday’s lawsuit, filed in New Orleans U.S. District Court by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of the Gulf Restoration Network and two other environmental groups, singles out the United Bulk Terminal for what the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition says is ongoing violations of their operating permits — and a violation of the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit aims to spur the company into investing in new, cleaner equipment.
As we pass overhead we can clearly see black plumes in the water, stretching from open-air barges and equipment laden with coal and petroleum dust.
“You can see that coal falling off the loader is a violation of their water permit.”
Eustis leans forward and starts shooting photos. Each image is geolocated via a small device he carries to add to their court filings.
“Smile for the Coast Guard,” he says to the plant below.
United Bulk Terminals Davant, LLC, the company that owns the terminal and has been operating it since 1965, says it has been in dialog with the lawsuit plaintiffs since November. That's when United Bulk says the environmental groups first approached the company.
"We invest substantial time and money to ensure compliance with our air and water permits, and have demonstrated our commitment to minimizing the impact of our operations on the environment and on the communities where we operate," United Bulk said in a written statement.
"Specifically, before any contact from the environmental groups, we were in process of enhancing environmental compliance efforts and had allocated over $80 million of capital towards a facility modernization program that includes comprehensive upgrades in accordance with the latest technology and practices in terms of safety and environmental impact," the company continued.
United Bulk says the company has already invested approximately $40 million in upgrades, and takes the environment, and regulatory requirements, seriously.