ST. JAMES — For several years now, Brettaiene Celestin and many of her neighbors along River Road in western St. James Parish have been battling the encirclement of their Burton Street neighborhood with tank farms and the closure of their street’s rear access to La. 3127.
Celestin said her family once owned some of the land where Burton Street ran and can’t understand how the road was allowed to be shut off a few years ago without a plan for many of Burton’s elderly and homebound residents to escape should a chemical incident occur.
“How (are) you going to get them out,” the 68-year-old asked during a recent interview at her home.
VACHERIE — The St. James Parish Council hired a Gonzales engineering firm Wednesday to evaluate the possible alignments of a future evacuation…
That concern and billions of dollars in new industrial projects poised to convert more of this rural area along the Mississippi River into an industrial zone interlaced with small, largely poor, black neighborhoods prompted parish leaders earlier this year to start pursuing a new, inland evacuation route away from the river.
The answer parish leaders recently got back were two routes north of Burton. Neither would be cheap to build.
GSA Consulting Engineers looked at six potential routes, including opening Burton back up, and settled on Park and Pierre streets to the north of the Burton neighborhood.
Extending and widening either one of the narrow, dead-end roads through cane fields and wetlands and over the Union Pacific Railroad line, oil and gas pipelines and the St. James Canal is estimated at more than $12 million, a GSA report says.
The feasibility study had targeted a more than 12-mile stretch of River Road between La. 3219 and La. 70 at the Sunshine Bridge. Both of those highways already reach La. 3127, a major, inland north-south highway parallel to River Road. But no other east-west roads inside the targeted zone offer available, public access to La. 3127.
Park Street passes by a parish park and community center while Pierre Street leads to a small clutch of homes owned by one family or their extended heirs. A representative of some of the family says they will consider selling. Both roads stop before broad expanses of agricultural land and frame the boundaries of the proposed $1.3 billion South Louisiana Methanol complex.
With the feasibility study's conclusions, Parish President Timmy Roussel said the parish’s next step is to meet on Jan. 16 with area industry officials who have already committed to help build the road to see what they can offer. Roussel said he will then share those commitments with the Governor's Office and other state officials to see how the state could also help.
“So we sit down with those guys, and we define it and we go from there," Roussel said.
He said the parish can't afford to pay for the future road in its entirety, though the parish is setting aside $100,000 in its 2019 budget for engineering of the new road the parish is now calling an "alternate access route."
Gov. John Bel Edwards said in an interview last week he had directed Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson; Jim Waskom, director of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness; and Chuck Carr Brown, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality, to meet with parish officials about the route and to examine the alternatives. Edwards said the state has not made a commitment for funding because the state hasn't been asked for a specific amount yet.
"But it's something we'll be working on with them," the governor said.
The feasibility study's findings also come as community opposition has been stirred over a $9.4 billion industrial complex proposed by Formosa Chemical in the Welcome area, despite support from Edwards and parish leaders like Roussel and Formosa's promises to help with the evacuation route.
Some residents and environmentalists have filed an appeal of a key parish land use approval for Formosa. The Parish Council is set to hear the appeal 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Courthouse Annex in Vacherie.
In addition to the major chemical facilities headed to the area, the eastern terminus of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a controversial crude oil line that has sparked protest and litigation along its 162-mile route, ends near the Burton Street area.
In April, a state district court judge ordered the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to require the pipeline owners to develop “effective environmental protection and emergency or contingency plans” in case of a spill or other disaster in area. The ruling remains on appeal and recently had a rehearing before a five-judge panel of the Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeal.
DNR has allowed construction to continue during the appeal. Roussel has said that the lower court ruling wasn't another motivation for the alternate access route.
After months of challenges, some in courtrooms and some at work sites, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is expected to be completed on time.
Delivered to the Parish Council late last month, the GSA report details how the engineers went through other possible routes and found them less than satisfactory or not in line with the preferences of parish officials.
Although Park and Pierre streets are among the longest, at more than 4 miles, and most expensive options, they are also the most centrally located to the Welcome area, a wish of parish officials.
The shortest and cheapest route with the fewest pipeline and utilities conflicts is Minnie Street. Located between the Welcome community and the proposed Formosa site, that route would cost $6.95 million to build, GSA estimated. But Minnie Street is on the far northern end of the area being studied and is too far from the central location parish officials are seeking, the report found.
Two other centrally located roads, Burton and Freetown streets, would also be somewhat cheaper to build, the report found, but Burton has a major drainage ditch and pipeline running parallel to it that could limit its design.
The Freetown route has more than two dozen land parcels, most of them residential, that the parish would need to buy. Burton and Kingview streets would also require the purchase of a significant number of residential properties, the GSA report says.
In a recent interview, Celestin and a handful of other Burton Street residents were less than enthused about the parish’s options, questioning how elderly residents who can’t walk would able to reach an evacuation route about a mile away. Some suggested Burton should be extended too, though the cost would be an additional $8.75 million.
For Celestin, the final answer is a buyout of her community, despite the unfairness she sees in having to leave the place where she grew up and has always lived.
“I would not leave this place, but this place now is leaving me,” Celestin said.
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