Mayor-President Kip Holden shot off a fiery letter to the director of the Port of Baton Rouge on Tuesday for backing his tenant Tubal-Cain Marine Services, which is planning to build a controversial industrial barge-cleaning operation on River Road.
In a letter he released publicly to the media, Holden suggests that Port of Greater Baton Rouge Director Jay Hardman would risk the health of Baton Rouge residents for financial gain by allowing Tubal-Cain to move forward with plans to operate.
Hardman said the letter was disheartening.
“It’s a lack of understanding of what’s taking place there,” he said Tuesday afternoon, noting that throughout the uproar he hasn’t gotten one phone call from a parish official to talk about the proposed facility.
The operations are expected to release air pollutants, leading to concerns because of the facility’s location adjacent to a residential subdivision and a BREC park. It’s also just downwind of LSU.
“Your fiduciary duties as the Executive Director of the Port of Baton Rouge do not trump the safety and livelihood of the people of this parish,” Holden wrote Hardman. “Just because the Port owns the land, you are willing to sacrifice the best interests of the citizens of Baton Rouge for $120,000.00 a year contract the Port entered into with Tubal-Cain.”
The mayor added that the move was “outrageous and a total disrespect of the people of our community.”
“You have made a decision relative to the quality of life for thousands for $120,000 a year. Why don’t you throw in as a bonus 30 pieces of silver?” Holden wrote.
The property is appropriately zoned heavy industrial for its planned uses. It awaits permits from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, which typically defers to local zoning when determining whether permits should be issued.
On Monday, two East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council members said they would pursue a zoning change that would limit the land use to commercial properties such as hotels and entertainment districts.
Hardman said opposition to the facility was blown out of proportion, citing “misinformation about this business.” He said he was skeptical about the proposed rezoning.
“Our position is that we don’t think they can,” Hardman said Monday.
Tubal-Cain’s lease with the port for 2,700 feet of property was first signed in late 2013 and extended earlier this year for 10 years with two-five year options at a rate of $10,000 a month — $120,000 a year.
Hardman said barge-cleaning operations are a necessary part of the maritime trade along the river that keep the barges repaired and working safely. He said the off-loading of materials and burning of vapors from the barges is done in an enclosed flare that won’t display a flame and it won’t be belching smoke like some people imagine.
“They think this is some kind of waste incinerator,” Hardman said. “That’s just not the case.”
With increases in petrochemical production along the river, the need for barge-cleaning facilities to keep that product moving safely will only increase. In this case, Hardman said, the facility will be behind the levee and the tree line where people won’t even notice it’s there.
“Bollinger Shipyards does the same thing on a much grander scale in the CBD of New Orleans,” Hardman said, and the region fights to keep it in place.
Although people have expressed concerns about the safety of the facility, Hardman said every regulatory agency from the U.S. Coast Guard to DEQ is saying the facility is safe.
“I understand people’s concerns, and I don’t discount them,” Hardman said. But, he said, those concerns aren’t based on what the facility is actually going to do.
The Port of Greater Baton Rouge was formed in 1952 by an act of the state Legislature as a political subdivision of the state. The port has jurisdiction in areas of Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes and is overseen by a 15-member commission that is appointed by the governor.
LSU President F. King Alexander has come out against the facility, as have many members of the faculty. Residents in the nearby Riverbend subdivision also have expressed opposition and concern about possible effects on their health.
While DEQ ultimately will decide whether to issue the state permit that allows the company to move forward with its plans, Holden’s letter places responsibility squarely on the port.
“You have refused to hear the outcry from people who could be impacted by this facility. Can you take the blinders off for a second and predict the economic impact if there is a leak that forces closure of the river to ship and barge traffic?” Holden wrote. “How can you be so sure that this is being blown out of proportion when the consequences are not fully known?”
The mayor added, “If the Port is so financially strapped that it is willing to douse the hopes of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then I suggest it is time for soul searching. You are a good man but this is a situation that we should say no to. The gifts of life, safety, peace and happiness are not negotiable.”
Hardman said the $120,000 in yearly rent won’t make or break the port by a long shot. But, he said, there are additional considerations including that this is a needed service. Tubal-Cain’s customers asked the company to bring its services to Louisiana, and the business will likely create 20 to 30 jobs over the next 10 years, he said.
According to the permit, the facility would bring in barges and pump out remaining liquids into 10 storage tanks on-site. Many of the vapors would be sent to an enclosed flare on the property to be burned off.
The facility expects to release 10 tons of nitrogen oxide, 49 tons of carbon monoxide and 15 tons of volatile organic compounds annually. The company has asked for flexibility from DEQ to accept the entire list of chemicals, including toxins, carcinogens and reproductive disrupters, according to presentations last week at a meeting with Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.