Infrastructure, recreation and economic development are important to the future of Plaquemines Parish, but the five men vying to replace Billy Nungesser as parish president say coastal restoration and flood protection top the list of priorities.
“Before we can bring big industry in here, we have to secure our coastline and barrier islands,” said Lane Greco, 50, a Belle Chasse Republican and construction contractor who is one of those running for the parish’s top post. “We still need to do a lot of coastal restoration.”
Two other Belle Chasse Republicans — Amos Cormier Jr., 68, a teacher and former parish councilman, and businessman and former four-term Councilman Jerry Hodnett, 71 — also are on the ballot. From the central part of the parish, Democrats Burghart Turner, 50, a current councilman from Port Sulphur, and businessman and former School Board member Byron Williams Jr., 38, of Braithwaite, round out the list.
Felix “Boopie” Hoskin Jr. qualified for the race but dropped out.
The primary is Nov. 4. A runoff, if needed, as seems likely, will be Dec. 6. Nungesser could not run again because of term limits.
If elected, Williams said, he would push the parish’s congressional delegation to extend the boundary marking state waters beyond the current three miles, which would allow Louisiana to reap more royalties from oil and gas leases and use the money to fund coastal projects.
He also said state and federal permitting guidelines need to be changed to keep sediment pipeline infrastructure in place after small diversion projects end, creating a network that can regularly use dredged sediment to replenish marshes onshore and barrier islands offshore.
Cormier, who has run for parish president twice before, also supports a more complete slurry pipeline delivery system, saying the parish dumps too much sediment off the continental shelf.
He said Plaquemines Parish has the opportunity to be on the leading edge of coastal restoration technology.
“If a little country that wears wooden shoes can accomplish something like that, I’m sure the United States of America can,” Cormier said, referring to actions the Dutch have taken in their battle with rising sea levels.
Cormier, who has twice served on the council, said there are still areas of the parish that are in “dire need” of better levee protection, notably Braithwaite and Jesuit Bend.
He said he supports the creation of some kind of umbrella program for flood insurance that would reduce rates by including areas of the country at high risk for other types of catastrophes, such as wildfires and tornadoes, in the same program. He said he would push for sensible federally mandated flood elevations, would support getting all 200 miles of parish levees federally accredited and recognized by FEMA, and would join and support Greater New Orleans Inc.’s Coalition for Sustainable Flood Insurance.
Hodnett said he’s not sold on whether major projects such as the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project in Myrtle Grove will accomplish their goals without hurting local fisheries.
“I’m going to have more scientific data before I commit to that,” he said. “To me, you’re playing Russian roulette. Our economy is based off oil and gas and the seafood industry, and we have to be very, very careful what we do about pumping fresh water into our estuaries.”
Turner, the councilman from Port Sulphur, said more sediment diversion projects are needed, but he said that anyone who truly supports coastal restoration should have reservations about the proposed RAM Terminals coal export facility in Ironton.
That project, which is awaiting federal approval, is expected to meet little resistance from local government even though environmental scientists have said it would undermine the Mid-Barataria project by reducing the amount of sediment that could be collected.
Turner said existing coal facilities in Plaquemines pollute the marshes already.
“Every time you open up the diversion, you’re dumping coal into the marsh,” he said of reports of pipelines clogged with coal dust. “You tell me you support coastal restoration and then you approve something like that?”
Greco said he would need to review a list of current projects before he could say much about his coastal restoration and flood protection priorities, though he said the key is working with council members and state and federal agencies to come up with the best plan.
He said diversion projects need to be carefully considered to make sure they don’t threaten the livelihood of the parish’s fishermen. “I understand we need it, but let’s do it to where we’re not hurting our fisheries,” he said.
Cormier and Hodnett both said the parish should spare no effort to speed up the replacement of the Belle Chasse bridge and tunnel, a project that could cost as much as $111 million.
“We’ve got to think outside the box and get this thing fixed at a speedier pace than is being done right now,” Cormier said.
Hodnett said he was told the timeframe for replacing the bridge is 2025, which he said is unacceptable.
“This thing, to me, is a hazard, and it needs to be replaced as expeditiously as possible,” he said, adding that he’d support coming up with more local money if it would get the job done a few years sooner.
Williams, however, said he would pursue creating a four-lane tunnel, saying that option hasn’t been sufficiently explored in the rush to replace the bridge.
Turner and Greco stressed the importance of making sure parish residents share in the economic benefits of projects.
“You’ve had major rebuilding, major construction projects in Plaquemines Parish, and local dump trucks are parked or they just get temporary work,” Turner said, noting that major employers often draw much of their workforce from outside the parish.
“Those who live and raise their kids here need to be able to participate in the blessings that exist here. They shouldn’t be at the back of the line; they should be at the front of the line,” he said.
Cormier, Williams and Hodnett stressed the importance of keeping up and expanding the parish’s recreation offerings.
Williams said he’d look into diverting money that was supposed to fund a Fort Jackson recreational facility to build one at F. Edward Hebert Boulevard in Belle Chasse.
Hodnett, who supervised the parish’s Recreation Department for a decade, said the parish should rededicate existing funding to recreation to beef up its offerings.
“Throughout our history, we’ve never had a president and a council that is pro-recreation,” he said. “We’re falling behind the Gulf parishes, and we’ve got some catching up to do.”
He said the Recreation Department doesn’t have a single basketball court of its own, having to rely instead on those owned by the school system.
Williams said he would push to build a business park and incubator next to the governmental buildings on F. Edward Hebert Boulevard. He said the site has more than 400 acres that could be developed to help fuel local industry and also could house the Plaquemines Association of Business and Industry.
Williams also said he would focus resources to help redevelop neighborhoods in Buras and Braithwaite that haven’t been repopulated since Hurricane Katrina, perhaps getting help from the United Way and Habitat for Humanity.
Greco said he would work with the state and national tourism boards to draw attention to the sport fishing industry and local culture in the southern part of the parish. This would help bring in more dollars for infrastructure and beautification in that area, which he said hasn’t gotten the same attention as the northern part of the parish.
Hodnett said he would streamline the permitting process in response to complaints that it is too difficult to get business done in the parish.
The candidates all said they would try to strike a cooperative tone with the council and increase transparency in government.
Greco said the parish should put basic information on coastal and infrastructure projects online so residents can stay informed. “If we’re doing a major project, they should know how much the project costs, where we’re at and how much money is in the budget for completion,” he said.
Hodnett, Cormier and Williams pledged to listen to employees and citizens alike, while Turner said he would reverse what he said has become a culture of one-sidedness and political horse-trading in parish government.
“No one will have to beg for basic services, and we’re not going to play games with the council,” Turner said. “Right now, it’s strictly for businesses, and mainly for the ones that make campaign contributions.”
Turner said different parts of the parish are treated differently. “If you have debris on the side of road in Belle Chasse, they come and pick it up. If you have debris on the side of the road in Port Sulphur, you have to call your council person,” he said.
Turner, who has worked for Chevron for almost three decades, said he is the candidate who would change things the most.
“When I get in there, a whole bunch of rocks will be turned over,” he said. “I’m their worst nightmare. They don’t want me in there.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.