Baton Rouge leaders are just a step away from thwarting a barge cleaning company’s plans to open shop on the Mississippi River, near residential neighborhoods and down the road from LSU.
The Planning Commission voted 6-3 on Monday to recommend changing the designated land use of the 60-acre property from heavy industrial to commercial. That change, if also approved by the Metro Council on Wednesday, would mean Tubal-Cain could not operate an industrial barge cleaning operation at the location it’s been developing for the past two years.
The project has attracted intense opposition in recent weeks, as Tubal-Cain has awaited its Department of Environmental Quality state permit, which, if approved, would allow the facility to release what is considered by state officials as a minor source of air pollution. DEQ had been expected to approve the permit because the permits are largely based on appropriate local zoning requirements.
The company provides cleaning services for industries transporting their products via the Mississippi River. The cleaning entails pumping liquids from barges for temporary storage in tanks and sending remaining fumes to an enclosed flare or venting them into the air, then cleaning the barges for reuse.
The location is less than a mile from Riverbend and Lake Beau Pre neighborhoods and BREC’s Farr Park, known for its horseback riding. It’s 3.1 miles from LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
Randy Cooper, Tubal-Cain’s operating manager, urged the Planning Commission to allow them to move forward with the project. He said the company provides a necessary service that accommodates many of the other already existing industries, like ExxonMobil, that are important to Baton Rouge’s economy.
Cooper stressed that they were invited to locate in Baton Rouge by the other industries and they’ve already spent $4 million over the past two years in good faith.
“Baton Rouge is a city that was built on, and thrives in part, because of the Mississippi River and the petrochemical industry,” he said.
Port of Greater Baton Rouge Director Jay Hardman said similar barge companies already operate in the area, going largely unnoticed by residents.
Hardman said a barge cleaning facility operated from 1979 to 1997 just north of Tubal-Cain’s proposed location. There’s another operation south of the site that’s been there for 10 years, providing fueling services.
But Tubal-Cain and port representatives were wildly outnumbered Monday before the Planning Commission. About 100 people flooded the City Hall chambers to support the rezoning and to protest the project, expressing concern about their health, their property values and their quality of life.
“There are older citizens who walk in our neighborhood, there are children who play in BREC park,” Riverbend homeowner Craig Juengling said.
Another project opponent, Eric Lockridge, told the Planning Commission that the location of the facility, right off the riverfront levee, would conflict with the millions of public dollars spent on improvements to make the area attractive, such as bike paths.
“The idea that this area could turn into an industrial waste cleaning site is horrible,” he said. “It undercuts all that effort, and we just spent all this money to improve riverfront access.”
The measure to rezone the property was proposed by Metro councilmen John Delgado and Chandler Loupe.
Delgado, who attended the meeting, said the city-parish should aspire for a better riverfront development.
“We can develop the riverfront from downtown to the Ascension parish line,” he said. “It should be something people can be attracted to and not the things that people run away from.”
He angrily called out the barge-cleaning representatives for their efforts.
“What are we leaving for our children?” Delgado said, adding that his young daughter attends school nearby. “Mr. Cooper, Mr. Hardman, if you think I’m going to let you spew poison near my daughter, you have another thing coming.”
Those voting in favor of rezoning the property were Tara Wicker, Steven Perret, Gregory DuCote, Laurie Marien, John Price and Todd Sterling. Those against the rezoning were Jason Engen, Sarah Holliday-James and Rossie Washington Jr.
DEQ will hold a public hearing on the permit for the proposed facility at 6 p.m. Tuesday at 602 N. Fifth St.
The Metro Council will have a final vote on the rezoning at 4 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall.