St. James Parish Council OKs oil tank farm, river terminal

A proposed crude oil tank farm and Mississippi River terminal nearly six years in the making has received a critical waiver from complying with a new land use plan in St. James Parish that governs how property can be used.

St. James Parish Council cleared the way for construction of the Petroplex International LLC complex on more than 1,700 acres of agricultural fields and woods near Vacherie. The property had been earmarked in early April for houses and agriculture under the new land use plan.

The council’s approval came with conditions, though.

The company will have to seek permits to run pipelines under River Road that would link the facility with the river. Parish officials said they wanted to avoid a pipe rack over the highway and protect the visual gateway to a rural portion of west St. James known for plantation homes and popular with tourists.

The $800 million tank farm, which will have large buffers from residences, could ultimately have 10 million barrels of storage capacity to handle and blend crude — including heavy Canadian and shale oil — as well as gasoline, other petroleum products, vegetable oil and bio-diesel.

The plant will be able to move commodities by ship, rail, highway or pipeline to refiners, according to permit documents.

The parish Planning Commission had voted, 5-3, to deny the facility Wednesday evening at the Parish Courthouse in Convent just hours before the council voted, 6-1, to allow the complex, overruling the commission.

Petroplex officials told the council they have been working on the project for years and received all the necessary permits. They said they spent more than $33 million to buy the site and ready it for construction.

An attorney for Petroplex, Jim Percy, told council members that the company had to start construction by July 31 under the terms of a state air permit issued in July 2009 or risk losing the permit.

“If we don’t get this approval, we’re done, and that $33 million, we lose,” Percy said.

Residents were divided on the tank farm, which has survived legal challenges to its air permit from residents helped by Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

Mathew Zeringue, 37, who owns property next to the plant and is part of the Community Strength group that fought the air permit, reminded the council members of the more than 1,100-signature petition opposing the facility. He urged the council to follow the commission’s lead in upholding the new regulations and denying Petroplex.

He said Petroplex officials knew about the proposed land use rules before buying the site in 2011 and that allowing the company in one of the few nonindustrialized parts of the parish would contribute to further population decline.

“The facts are on your side. The law is on your side. The people are on your side,” Zeringue said.

The Petroplex dispute resurfaced as east bank residents in St. James have fought another, smaller oil tank facility proposed in residential Paulina. Opponents of Wolverine Terminals spoke against Petroplex and urged the council to uphold the parish’s land use plan.

“If the Council makes the decision to make changes to this plan, who will be next?” asked Charlotte Metge, 60, of Paulina.

Paul Aucoin, chairman of the St. James Parish Economic Development Board, reminded the council that the board voted unanimously in 2009 to support the project for the jobs and the tax dollars it would bring.

Several other residents spoke in favor of the project at the Planning Commission meeting earlier on Wednesday, saying it would give a needed economic boost to the west bank.

Councilmen Jason Amato, Ken Brass, James Brazan, Charles Ketchens, Terry McCreary and Alvin St. Pierre voted for the waiver to allow the Petroplex project to go forward. Councilman Ralph Patin voted against.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter at @NewsieDave.