The state Department of Natural Resources “breached its duty as a public trustee under the Coastal Use Guidelines and the Louisiana Constitution” by issuing a permit for construction of a coal terminal in Plaquemines Parish, a Plaquemines state judge has ruled.
Kevin Conner, a 25th Judicial District Court judge, rendered a decision Dec. 23 to remand a coastal use permit back to DNR after finding that the department didn’t have enough information to justify the permit’s approval.
“It’s a welcome ruling,” said Devin Martin, an organizer with the Sierra Club, which challenged the permit in court.
The decision will allow for new public hearings and public comment to be taken if the permit process moves forward again, Martin said. This time there is much more public awareness and concern about the proposed coal terminal and the possibility of coal trains running through populated areas, Martin said.
“For the community who lives (in the nearby town of Ironton) it’s incredibly important,” agreed Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Wilma Subra, also with LEAN, said the terminal’s community impact would include the amount of coal dust that gets into the air and settles over the landscape and homes as well as into people’s lungs.
“Their life is all this black coal dust that leads to respiratory problems,” Subra said of people affected by two other coal terminals in the area of Ironton.
Representatives with RAM Terminals didn’t respond Tuesday to requests for comments.
Patrick Courreges, a DNR spokesman, said department attorneys are reviewing the judgment and discussing what action to take next.
Just doing a report on possible alternative sites won’t be enough, Subra said.
“They need to do it during the process, not after the fact,” she said. The court ruling, she said, means the permit process needs to start over for full consideration of alternative sites.
RAM Terminals LLC first applied for a coastal use permit in February 2012 to build a coal export terminal in Myrtle Grove. The coastal use permit, one of many required to build the terminal, is required when an activity will have a significant impact on coastal areas.
The RAM Terminals property is located along the Mississippi River and is at the same spot where the state is pursuing plans to build the first major sediment diversion for coastal restoration purposes.
DNR issued the coastal use permit for the RAM Terminals facility in September 2013 after the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority signed an agreement with the company that the state said would allow both projects to move forward.
A number of environmental groups including the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network and LEAN filed a petition asking DNR to reconsider the permit. That request was denied in October 2013. In response, the groups, as well as two residents of Ironton Near the proposed terminal site, filed the petition challenging the permit.
In their appeal, the groups said DNR violated the state constitution, state law and the department’s own guidelines when it issued the permit.
“Not only did RAM fail to specifically name an alternative site in its application, but the record does not show that DNR exercised any independent evaluation of alternative sites,” according to the ruling. Instead, the judge ruled, DNR relied upon the company’s “alternatives analysis” that had only two sentences that said RAM looked at other sites but that none had both rail and quality deepwater access.
When DNR representatives were asked who looks at whether alternative sites were actually investigated, DNR said the department doesn’t have the resources to investigate all alternative sites. Instead, its staff talks to the companies about the sites, but in this case they didn’t get any specifics, according to the ruling.
“The RAM terminal said we looked at some sites, but we didn’t like any of them. That’s literally all they said,” said Robert Wiygul, one of the attorneys representing the environmental groups.
It appears, according to the ruling, that the company felt the Myrtle Grove location was the only suitable site primarily because it’s a site that RAM had purchased.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.