A proposed industrial barge-cleaning site that would have been located less than a mile from residential neighborhoods and a BREC park in south Baton Rouge has been killed.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council voted 9-2 Wednesday to change the zoning of the property from heavy industrial to commercial, effectively preventing Tubal-Cain Marine Services from moving forward with its operations at that location. Now, the land is zoned for businesses like restaurants and retail. The vote to rezone the land was a last-ditch effort by council members John Delgado and Chandler Loupe to stop the unpopular proposed operation, which had already secured a number of permits and invested millions into plans to open the facility.
“This is a significant victory for the people,” Delgado said. “I was very pleased to see my colleagues make the right decision in support of this measure.”
Many residents and elected officials have been up in arms for weeks over the project because of concerns the industrial facility would be polluting the air in an area surrounded by families, near a special needs school and down the road from LSU. Many opponents have pointed out that the permit allows black smoke to be released into the air at the site for six minutes every hour.
But the issue, which has become a flashpoint in south Baton Rouge, left some elected officials who represent the northern part of the parish wondering where the outcry was when similar unpopular measures made their way successfully into north Baton Rouge, polluting the air next to residential neighborhoods in black, lower-income areas.
“If this fight were in north Baton Rouge, would you be there,” Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis asked the residents, mostly from Riverbend and Lake Beau Pre, who had packed the council chambers Wednesday. She said she hopes that if the facility tries to move north — near neighborhoods already located adjacent to petrochemical facilities, a future industrial landfill and a sewer plant — that the current slate of opponents would be just as outraged.
Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel said before the vote, in an email to the council, that she planned to vote against the rezoning because she was concerned that pushing the project out of south Baton Rouge would send it to her district.
“It’s time to go south, to ease (the) concentration on the north,” she wrote. “Among the affected groups of environmental justice, those in high-poverty and racial minority groups have the most propensity to receive the harm of environmental injustice.”
However, Banks-Daniel ultimately changed her mind and voted for the rezoning.
Mary Olive Pierson, a Baton Rouge attorney who has been vocal in opposing the industrial facility in south Baton Rouge, apologized to the council for not being previously more involved in battles to keep similar projects out of north Baton Rouge.
“I was unaware; I should have made myself more aware,” she said. “But if anything else comes up in north Baton Rouge, they’ve got me.”
Pierson promised to offer her services for free to help keep industrial sites away from residential neighborhoods in the poorer northern part of the parish.
Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, taking note of concerns about north Baton Rouge industry, said the council should aim to protect all people across the parish.
“It’s not about rich or poor; it’s about right and wrong,” she said. “I do not want to bring anything near your family that would hurt your family, whether it’s north Baton Rouge or south Baton Rouge.”
The vote marked the third day in a row of public comment on the topic, with hundreds of people showing up every day to oppose the facility. In recent weeks, Baton Rouge leaders such as Mayor-President Kip Holden, LSU President F. King Alexander, state Sens. Sharon Weston Broome and Dan Claitor, state Rep. Patricia Smith and public parks director Carolyn McKnight all expressed their opposition to the proposed industrial operation.
On Wednesday, which was the final vote, representatives from Tubal-Cain and the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, which owns the land, didn’t show up. There was no one in the Council Chambers to speak in favor of the project or to answer questions.
Councilman Buddy Amoroso said he initially intended to vote against the rezoning. But he noted that Tubal-Cain had never reached out to him, so he decided to side with the property rights of the nearby homeowners.
Earlier this week, Tubal-Cain went before both the state Department of Environmental Quality and the city-parish Planning Commission to make its case. Representatives said the company provides a necessary service for existing industries that use barges to transport cargo on the Mississippi River. Tubal-Cain Operations Manager Randy Cooper previously said the company has spent two years and invested $4 million to prepare the site.
Neither Cooper, nor Jay Hardman, executive director of the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, could be reached for comment Wednesday.
Only Metro Council members Joel Boé and Ryan Heck voted against the rezoning. Ronnie Edwards was absent. Councilmembers Trae Welch, Banks-Daniel, Loupe, Scott Wilson, Collins-Lewis, Marcelle, Amoroso, Tara Wicker and Delgado voted in favor of rezoning. “It came down to one basic fact: property rights,” Boé said of his vote. “It sets a bad precedent that a governmental body can come in and change property zoning without the owner’s approval.”
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.