CONVENT — St. James Parish government is facing a legal challenge to its new land use plan.
Petroplex International LLC filed suit against the parish in federal court on Jan. 22, but the lawsuit’s defendants — Parish President Timmy Roussel, all seven parish councilmen and Parish Permitting Supervisor Ryan Donadieu — were just served with the lawsuit on April 30.
The lawsuit claims the parish deprived Petroplex of its constitutional right to due process when the parish issued the corporation a notice of violation and stop-work order on Dec. 4 and then refused to hold a public hearing on the matter with Petroplex officials.
Parish officials did meet with Petroplex in a closed-door meeting just after the stop-work order was issued, but the representatives could not come to a resolution, the lawsuit says.
Petroplex representatives also asked the Parish Council in January to revoke the stop-work order, but the parish took no action on the request.
Parish officials had said construction at the site was not progressing according to terms agreed upon in a special resolution.
Petroplex officials have said, however, that the corporation did meet a July 31 deadline to begin construction at the site, as directed by the parish and the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The lawsuit alleges Petroplex has already spent $33 million on the planned $800 million liquid storage tank farm in Vacherie and has lost millions more since it was forced to shut down construction.
Petroplex wants a trial by jury and seeks unspecified damages.
U.S. District Judge Jane Triche-Milazzo is overseeing the case.
The Parish Council, Roussel and parish attorneys met with Petroplex attorneys for 40 minutes in a closed-door session during Wednesday’s Parish Council meeting, but Parish Council Chairman Charles Ketchens said afterward that no decision had been reached regarding the lawsuit.
In the lawsuit, Petroplex and the two other plaintiffs, Mainline Energy Partners LLC and Homeplace Ventures LLC, allege the litigation resulted from “improper enactment, interpretation and enforcement of a parishwide land use ordinance” by parish officials in attempts to prohibit Petroplex from constructing and operating its planned liquid storage tank farm.
“We feel pretty confident this whole land use plan was enacted illegally,” Petroplex CEO Larry Sciacchetano said in a telephone interview earlier Wednesday.
Mainline Energy Partners and Homeplace Ventures lease the land to Petroplex, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit alleges parish officials had been encouraging Petroplex to move forward with the tank storage project since 2007 but then approved a land use plan last year that designates the Petroplex property as incompatible with industry.
Last year, Petroplex asked the parish government to designate the site as industrial in the land use plan or to issue an exemption to allow the company to build at the site.
No action was taken, and the parish Planning Commission in May 2014 recommended the Parish Council deny Petroplex’s request to build.
The Parish Council, however, overruled the planning commission and allowed Petroplex to move forward with construction. The Parish Council issued a land use waiver after Petroplex agreed to abide by a special resolution delineating construction regulations and guidelines.
Petroplex attorney Brent Barriere called St. James Parish’s recent actions a “classic illustration” of a government entity pulling the rug out at too late a stage.
“This rug was pulled hard and fast and at a huge cost to Petroplex and, ultimately, the parish and the people who reside here,” Barriere said in a telephone interview earlier Wednesday.
If construction continues at the site, the tank farm could ultimately have 10 million barrels of storage capacity to handle and blend crude oil, including heavy Canadian and shale oil, as well as gasoline, other petroleum products, vegetable oil and biodiesel.
Sciacchetano said he believes Roussel arbitrarily issued the stop-work order after feeling pressure from local groups who do not want Petroplex to build near their communities.
Sciacchetano also said he believes parish officials want to test the new land use plan to see if it stands up in court.
“All I want to do is build a tank farm and really, we should not have to answer to the parish,” Sciacchetano said. “All we should have to answer to is DEQ.”
Sciacchetano said it took so long to serve the defendants with the lawsuit because one of the attorneys hired to represent Petroplex also had worked on a case for the parish, and the parish believed a conflict of interest existed.
Roussel declined comment after the Parish Council meeting Wednesday and referred all questions about the lawsuit to parish attorneys.