Plaquemines tank farm concerns prompt lawsuit

The people who live in the upscale camp community of Myrtle Grove in Plaquemines Parish know that when a tropical storm starts heading their way, the land under their camps is going to flood.

That’s why they scratched their heads in amazement, and eventually sued the state, when the state Department of Natural Resources approved a 5 million-barrel oil tank farm being built by NOLA Oil Terminal LLC directly across La. 23 from their vacation homes.

“They’re in the one spot in this parish that is guaranteed to flood in every storm. Every storm,” said Mike Mudge, a property owner in Myrtle Grove. “That’s the amazing part.”

Property owners Bill Monie and Ralph Herrmann share those concerns, pointing to the disasters of Murphy Oil during Hurricane Katrina and Stolthaven during Hurricane Isaac, when residential areas near tank farms suffered spills that brought oil into neighborhoods.

However, even after those oil spills, it doesn’t appear that any state agency or department is required to take such risks into consideration when deciding where these types of facilities may be located. Instead, there is a piecemeal approach in which different agencies each handle just a part of the overall permitting.

For example, the state Department of Natural Resources handles the coastal use permit that only addresses certain wetland impacts, while the state Department of Environmental Quality handles air and storm water permits.

Deciding what goes where

Deciding where these types of facilities should be built comes down to the local zoning and parish governments’ decisions on what types of industrial development can go where.

In the case of the tank farm planned for Myrtle Grove, which is under construction and expected to start operation in 2015, zoning for the 152-acre parcel under parish ordinance is floodplain.

The floodplain designation allows a number of specific industrial and business activities but also allows for the Parish Council to approve other uses as well, said Mike Metcalf, chief building official and floodplain manager with the parish.

Homeowners say the property should have been zoned, or at least gone through the process of rezoning, to a heavy-industrial zone called I-3; however, Metcalf said it’s not an either-or situation. The tank farm could have fit into an I-3 zoning but also fits within the current zoning classification of floodplain if approved by the Parish Council. That happened in the case of the Myrtle Grove tank farm.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said that because the council voted to approve the use, it would also have approved a rezoning if that proved necessary.

Residents fight back

The homeowners have a lawsuit pending against Plaquemines Parish alleging the tank farm doesn’t comply with the parish zoning codes, along with a separate suit against the state Department of Natural Resources.

The homeowners received a court order in January in their suit against DNR forcing the state agency to reopen public comment on a previously approved coastal use permit for the facility.

The comment period runs through March 2 but applies to less than an acre of the 152-acre site where there are vegetated wetlands that aren’t located behind a levee. Other areas aren’t subject to a coastal use permit because they’re considered out of the coastal influence, said Patrick Courreges, communications director with DNR.

The biggest issue for the homeowners is just how safe a tank farm can be in a flood-prone area, especially a tank farm that could contain 5 million barrels of petroleum products.

“The issue is DNR, the lackadaisical rubber-stamp attitude and the Parish Council’s rubber-stamp attitude,” Mudge said.

Although the project was approved by the council, not all council members were on board. The council member representing the area where the tank farm will be located, Burghart Turner, voted against the project.

Turner said he doesn’t agree that the zoning was properly followed and said the council shouldn’t have approved “such a hazardous facility” until the levee system improvements planned for the area were in place.

Although other council members supported the project for economic development reasons, Turner said, there shouldn’t be business at any cost.

“A lot of things would create jobs but not at the expense of people,” he said. “You had communities all around it speaking out against it. The council ignored it.”

With the amount of petroleum products to be stored, an accident could wipe the area out, Turner said.

“We’re not a poor parish,” he said. “Why risk it?”

Other parish and company officials say they recognize the flooding potential and are working with state and federal agencies to design a facility that can account for that risk.

Levee projects in works

In addition to a recently completed road elevation project on La. 23 that can act as secondary levee protection, Nungesser said, there are also plans through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to raise levees.

Nungesser also noted that the corridor along the river is an industrial area. He said that’s part of the reason the additional levee work will get done.

“We’ve got to justify the investment in the federal levees,” he said.

After Hurricane Katrina, Nungesser said, the parish worked hard to convince state and federal legislators of the value Plaquemines Parish had to the rest of the country in terms of support to the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. That value was the leverage used to get federal funding to protect the parish and that oil and gas support infrastructure.

“Now I feel like it’s our part to develop it smart,” he said.

Nungesser also said it was unfair for members of the community to say they don’t want the tank farm in the area.

“Anyone who built there knew that corridor along the river in Plaquemines Parish was going to be industrial,” Nungesser said. “This tank farm is probably the best, safest thing that can go in there.”

He said other industrial uses could create noise or other irritants to the nearby Myrtle Grove community, but the tank farm will be a quiet neighbor.

“The quality of life in that area is not going to be changed,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a safety issue to the community or the residents there.”

However, he added, “Is there a risk? Absolutely, but it’s minimal.” He said the parish is working with the company to make sure it’s a safe facility that takes additional precautions.

NOLA Oil Terminal co-owner Christian Amedee said additional work is being done at the site to protect against flooding, including a secondary containment levee around the tanks that will be three to four times the mandated height.

He said the mandated height is calculated based on the capacity of each tank, so it can vary but will probably be 6 to 8 feet high.

In addition, the tanks will be installed on elevated reinforced concrete platforms. That means the tanks will be 5 feet above sea level and will be anchored down, he said.

“We’re designing so that even if there’s 3 feet of water on Highway 23, we’ll still be operational,” Amedee said, adding that they’ve learned from flaws that led to other tank farm problems.

“We’re going to be the first of the new breed,” he said. “In a post-BP, Katrina, Isaac atmosphere, safety is paramount down here.”

The work is in addition to the levee improvements to be made in the area in the future, he said.

“That’s (the future levee work) why this industrial corridor is coming into development now,” he said.

Amedee said the tank farm will employ between 50 and 75 people when it begins operations.

Amedee co-owns NOLA Oil Terminal LLC with Ross Laris. Although neither is a frequent political contributor, Amedee did donate $375 as a golf tournament sponsor for Parish Councilman Kirk Lepine in 2013, and Laris donated $2,500 to Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2011, according to campaign finance reports.