Environmentalists used good organizing and state laws to kill a Louisiana coal terminal project

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Effective community organizing and a public trust provision in the Louisiana Constitution combined to kill a Mississippi River coal export terminal in the final days of 2017.

The RAM coal terminal had been proposed for a parcel of land on the west bank of the river in Plaquemines Parish below New Orleans. RAM was a project of Missouri-based Armstrong Energy, which filed for bankruptcy on November 1, 2017. The company, which produces coal in the Illinois Basin, bought a 602-acre site in 2012, just above the small community of Ironton.

The now-dead RAM coal export terminal would have been located adjacent to the intake of Louisiana’s largest sediment diversion project on the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish. Source: Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

The project died when the company failed to seek an extension for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that allowed it to do site preparation work. Under the terms of that 2014 permit, RAM had until November 30, 2017, to apply for an extension if the work had not been completed.

Opponents of the project were jubilant.

“What a great way to end 2017 and begin 2018 knowing that the clock has run out on a project that can pollute, makes communities sick, and threatens coastal restoration projects,” Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), told 50 States on Thursday.

LEAN is part of the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition, a group that fought the RAM coal terminal. Other coalition members include the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, and Public Citizen. The coalition galvanized opposition to the proposed plant in Plaquemines and neighboring Jefferson Parish by emphasizing the likelihood of coal train traffic through the two parishes, which both straddle the Mississippi River.

“This victory is a result of hard work by so many individuals who came together as a coalition to stand up for our communities and coastal protection,” said Audrey T. Salvant, a Plaquemines Parish council member who grew up in Ironton. “Many times, we were told the RAM coal export terminal was a ‘done deal’ — and now it’s done.”

“Our economy and livelihoods depend on coastal restoration,” said Ricky Templet, a Jefferson Parish council member. “We need to stand behind our commitment to coastal restoration and reject projects that undermine the critical work being done to restore our coast and protect our communities.”

The coal terminal would have been located next to the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s (CPRA) top wetlands restoration project — the roughly $1.5 billion Mid-Barataria sediment diversion structure. A design contract has been awarded, but the project faces at least three years of federal review before work can begin.

Barataria Bay is a large marshy area located south of New Orleans to the west of the Mississippi River. Flood control efforts in the 20th century, including the construction of levees along the Mississippi, cut off Barataria Bay from the natural forces that had made it a robust estuary, playing a key role in Louisiana’s seafood industry.

The RAM coal terminal and the Mid-Barataria sediment diversion project would have been situated next to each other near Myrtle Grove. Source: Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

According to the CPRA, Barataria Bay lost more than 5,700 acres of wetlands per year from 1974 to 1990. The sediment diversion project will mimic the seasonal flooding patterns of the river that once fed the bay in order to help rebuild its wetlands.

The RAM project originated during the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, while current Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser was Plaquemines Parish president. Nungesser steered approval of a building permit for the project through parish government. Meanwhile, Jindal’s Department of Natural Resources issued a permit for the plant in October 2013.

After Nungesser became lieutenant governor in 2016, the Plaquemines Parish Council rescinded the building permit it had issued for the RAM project.

There are two other coal export terminals in Plaquemines Parish. Kinder Morgan operates one just over a mile below the RAM terminal site on the west bank of the river. United Coal operates a bulk coal terminal about eight miles up river from Ironton on its east bank.

The CPRA is directed by the governor’s special assistant on coastal affairs. In 2012, Jindal’s special assistant at CPRA executed an agreement with RAM that would have allowed the open air coal storage facility to be built, but provided that coal-carrying ships and barges would move when the sediment diversion project was in operation. RAM agreed to pay fines of $26,000 per day up to $1.9 million per year for every day a boat docked at the facility after the CPRA opened its sediment diversion project. The agreement has been a sore point with environmental groups, because it undermined the effectiveness of the sediment diversion project.

Twice while Jindal was in office, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued permits for the RAM project. The first, issued on October 1, 2013, was overturned by a state court after environmental groups sued claiming the DNR had not complied with the state constitution in awarding the permit.

Michael Brown is an attorney with environmental firm Waltzer Wiygul & Garside, which represented environmental groups challenging the permit. Brown said the case focused on the duties imposed on state departments and agencies to put protection of the environment on equal footing with economic interests.

“Article 9, Section 1 of the Louisiana Constitution requires that the public interest be considered in the review of state actions,” Brown told 50 States. “We asserted that DNR did not follow its constitutional requirement, which obligated them to review all aspects of the project, including whether it was better suited for an alternative location. DNR didn’t do that, despite the fact that the impacts the terminal would have had on Ironton, other communities, and the costal restoration project would have been significant.”

Judge Kevin Connor of the 25th Judicial District Court agreed, vacating the permit on December 23, 2014. The DNR issued a second permit in 2015. Brown said environmentalists then lodged an administrative protest alleging the department had not met its obligations under the Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978.

“Essentially, the act imposes a burden on DNR and other agencies very similar to that in the constitution,” Brown explained. “We argued that the department had not considered all of the implications of the RAM permit on wetlands in the Coastal Zone.”

Brown called the public trust implicit in these two laws “very powerful tools” for environmental protection in Louisiana.

“It is widely applicable,” Brown explained. “It is incredibly broad and places important requirements on agencies that, at times, they don’t live up [to] — in part because the provision is underutilized.”

On April 26, 2016, after Gov. John Bel Edwards had taken office, the DNR rescinded the permit that had been re-issued under Jindal’s watch.

MaryLee Orr is hopeful that environmental groups’ victory over the RAM project will bring badly needed change to development in Louisiana’s threatened coastal zone.

“The real issue is what do we want our coast to look like and what do we want our communities to be like,” she told 50 States. “It is time to make thoughtful, well-planned development, particularly along the banks of the Mississippi River.”