A proposed barge-cleaning facility along the Mississippi River near a neighborhood south of LSU has set off a firestorm of protest from an array of heavy-hitters.
The opposition is diverse, from Republican Congressman Garret Graves to Democratic Mayor-President Kip Holden. The Metro Council is even eyeing the idea of belatedly rezoning the property to prohibit that kind of industrial business, considered a minor air pollution source by state environmental officials, in that area.
Some hostility toward a new industrial facility in East Baton Rouge Parish isn’t uncommon. When an industrial landfill was proposed for the Alsen community in north Baton Rouge, the city-parish and Holden lent their voices to cries against the project.
But the outrage over the barge-cleaning facility, and the clout of those who are opposed, is striking. Dissent might have begun with Riverbend residents, environmentalists and elected officials, but it has grown to include LSU and the parish’s park system. Even the Baton Rouge Area Chamber has weighed in, suggesting the site is not a good fit for the operation.
Veterans of unsuccessful battles against industrial expansion in north Baton Rouge say the full-throated effort to quash the barge-cleaning operation at the other end of the parish feels like a slap in the face. The low-income, largely black communities in north Baton Rouge are home to the bulk of the parish’s petrochemical plants and to several old, polluted waste sites.
They wonder if the same outcry would occur if the proposed barge-cleaning business was headed to their area instead of a whiter, wealthier corner of south Baton Rouge.
“No way, Jose,” said Stephanie Anthony, a north Baton Rouge resident and founding director of the Louisiana Democracy Project’s Pray for Our Air program.
They see this as a question of environmental racism.
“This whole question is, ‘Are all communities created equal?’ ” asked Robert Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston who has studied environmental justice issues in Louisiana and around the country. “You’re talking about where the political power lies.”
But Metro Council members who are pushing to rezone the property on the Mississippi River batture — the land between the levee and the water — where Tubal-Cain Marine Services’s facility would go dispute any favoritism, defending their track record of helping other communities in the parish facing similar issues.
Council member John Delgado noted that when he first took office years ago, one of the first tasks was finding money to relocate people in a north Baton Rouge neighborhood plagued by an expanded sewer plant. The council also passed a resolution against the Alsen landfill, he said.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that we don’t do right by everybody,” he said. “We certainly try to.”
The flash point
Tubal-Cain’s barge-cleaning operation would entail pumping liquid from barges for temporary storage in tanks, sending remaining fumes to an enclosed flare or venting them into the air, then cleaning out the barges for reuse. Removed material stored in the tanks would either be sold or disposed of off site.
Port of Greater Baton Rouge Director Jay Hardman said his organization considered facilities other than the barge-cleaning operation for that property, which the port owns, but rejected them because they could have been disruptive to the community. Facilities that would involve heavy truck traffic through the area weren’t seen as a good fit.
In contrast, he said, barge cleaning seemed to be a low-impact use of the property.
But the opposition has been fervent, including more than 100 comments filed with the state Department of Environmental Quality, focused mainly on air pollution. Other concerns lodged with DEQ include the possibility of an accident that could endanger people in their homes or at a nearby BREC park, uncertainty over exactly what chemicals the facility will handle, potential harm to nesting bald eagles along the levee and the proximity of what is viewed as an industrial practice in an area widely considered residential.
Those opposed include nearby residents, Metro Council members and LSU President F. King Alexander — the university has property near the site. Leaders of the Louisiana School for the Deaf and the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, located on Brightside Lane less than three miles from the proposed facility, also voiced concerns.
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has gotten involved, with CEO Adam Knapp telling the Baton Rouge Business Report that they want to help the company find another location.
“Since we became aware of the concerns, we’ve been trying to focus on what alternative sites could be out there,” he said.
Asked why the chamber got involved in the barge-cleaning facility issue but not the Alsen landfill controversy, Knapp said in an interview with The Advocate that landfills by definition are not the type of projects that BRAC focuses on. He added that the barge-cleaning facility does meet that definition, which centers on economic impact.
The company has refused to comment on the controversy, but in February operations manager Randy Cooper said they were surprised by the sudden interest in a project that had been in the planning stages for more than a year. He said that much misinformation was being spread about the nature of the operation and that safety concerns were being overblown.
There is industry all over south Louisiana, but research has found that exactly where it is located can be uneven, with the associated ills disproportionately affecting black areas.
A 2012 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at how much disparity there is in cancer risks from toxic air pollution and whether a community is rich or poor, black or white. Along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the study found that people in low-income census tracts have 12 percent more risk than people in high-income areas. The report also found that people living in census areas that are majority black bore 16 percent more of the risk than white areas.
One argument sometimes used when new facilities are sited near black communities is that it’s already an industrial area and has been for decades.
“If you have three facilities, it’s easier to get four. If you’ve got six facilities, it’s easier to get seven because one more won’t matter,” Bullard said. “That type of toxic loading is a form of discrimination.”
Blake Hudson, an LSU environmental law professor who also studies land use, said much of the disparity in East Baton Rouge Parish is “grounded in historical legacies.” Environmental protection measures didn’t really begin until the 1970s, and back then people didn’t know as much about what it meant to live by a polluted area, he said.
Moreover, many industrialized areas developed at a time when black residents didn’t have a voice in government.
During the Jim Crow era, a black person couldn’t just complain to local government about an invasive new development, noted Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans. That earlier disenfranchisement can sometimes fuel current disparity in where and how facilities are located, she said.
“The past isn’t the past. It’s still present,” she said.
Examples of that can be seen in historically black communities like Diamond, a small community within the town of Norco along the Mississippi River, Alsen in north Baton Rouge, and Mossville near Lake Charles, all founded by former slaves following the Civil War.
Two recent local fights over the location of controversial facilities have been centered in north Baton Rouge.
Just north of Southern University, the University Place neighborhood was a community where adults congregated in their front yards and children played in a bordering BREC park. But in the 1990s, the city-parish paved over the park greenery to expand the North Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment plant, bringing with it sewer odors and flies.
The neighborhood sued, but the courts after 17 years of litigation ultimately ruled in favor of the city-parish. Only in recent years did the city-parish government relent and find money to relocate the residents.
“It wouldn’t have happened in south Baton Rouge,” said Greg Mitchell, a University Place leader who helped spearhead the effort to get relief from the city-parish. “Minority communities are normally left behind or neglected in this system. That’s why we constantly see negative facilities being built and brought into communities with no regard to our lives.”
He said he’s pleased to see elected officials stand up for residents in south Baton Rouge because he doesn’t think any neighborhoods should be next to industrial sites.
Alsen, where the landfill is slated to open, has a long history of industrial problems. For about a century, residents lived an almost rural life in East Baton Rouge. They kept gardens, fished and hunted in the nearby swamps.
That all changed in the 1960s, when Rollins Environmental Services and Petro-Processors of Louisiana started taking in petrochemical wastes that were plowed into the ground, burned or stored in open pits that leaked. In 1984, one area became a Superfund site — subjecting it to a heavily monitored cleanup — and another is still under consideration for that designation.
Now more waste is expected to come into the area with the approval of the new landfill. Located across from Petro-Processors along Brooklawn Drive, the landfill can accept “industrial” waste, which while not designated as “hazardous” can include fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals, as well as byproducts from plastics manufacturing and the pulp-and-paper industry.
Local residents and environmental groups opposed the landfill, as did elected officials, including Holden, the Metro Council and state Rep. Dalton Honoré, who represents the area.
But many don’t see the same level of support as the Riverbend neighborhood in south Baton Rouge has mustered.
“North Baton Rouge has been a dumping site even back during my childhood,” Honoré said. “When south Baton Rouge speaks, people listen,” he said, primarily because of the demographics and the higher income of the area. “The bulk of the people would say environmental racism, but economic status plays a big part.”
“It’s not fair, but at the end of the day who gets the dump? North Baton Rouge,” he said. “But I don’t want to see that kind of industry in anyone’s backyard.”
One wrinkle in the Alsen battle is that some neighbors supported the facility, partly because the company promised to help finance community programs.
After the landfill was approved by DEQ, the city-parish and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network sued to get that decision reversed. A judge dismissed the lawsuits because issues they focused upon weren’t raised during the permit process discussion. The city-parish decided not to appeal the decision, but LEAN has appealed.
Wilma Subra, a chemist who works with LEAN, said people in other parts of the parish didn’t get involved in the Alsen fight.
“Until it first happens in your neighborhood, you don’t pay attention,” she said.
Yet Subra said the unity of the opposition in south Baton Rouge has created a greater environmental awareness that will carry over to future issues, regardless of what happens with the barge-cleaning facility.
Both Delgado and Chandler Loupe, who are sponsoring a measure to rezone the site of the proposed barge-cleaning operation, say the Metro Council has worked to stand up for all residents facing environmental concerns.
But Loupe, who as an attorney has represented clients in environmental litigation, acknowledged the advantages enjoyed by wealthier residents.
“You can certainly argue that the more affluent parts of the parish are more able to mobilize opposition,” Loupe said. “Plus a lot of them are landowners, and less fortunate people or people below the poverty line tend to be tenants.”
Council member Chauna Banks-Daniel, who represents a north Baton Rouge district, expressed similar thoughts.
Although she wishes south Baton Rouge well in their fight, she said she also wishes the same level of pressure had been brought to similar issues in her area.
“It’s once again a situation of the haves vs. the have-nots,” she said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10. Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.