Westwego lifts moratorium on chemical storage facility’s expansion

Less than a month after the Westwego City Council instituted a surprising new ban on the construction of chemical storage tanks, council members have reversed course but not without some dissent.

The ban was largely due to expansion plans discussed by Blackwater New Orleans LLC for the company’s chemical storage facility in Westwego. Councilman Ted Munch asked the council for the ban after saying that nearby residents had expressed concerns to him about the facility’s constant expansion. The facility is in Councilman Glenn Green’s district, and he abstained from the vote in January.

But Monday, Green said the council’s decision was unfair. He said it targeted a company that has done its best to be a good corporate neighbor after a rocky start to its relationship with the city. Green said his constituents have told him it seems like Blackwater is being treated unfairly, and he wanted the ban lifted.

“I don’t want to seem like I’m singling anybody out or picking on anybody in my district,” Green said.

Blackwater and Westwego have had an at times contentious relationship over the years with prior chemical leaks and proposed expansion plans that included dangerous materials. However, after several meetings, and the creation of a city board to monitor chemical facilities, things appeared to have improved. In May, the council approved an expansion at the facility after initially instituting a construction moratorium at Green’s urging.

Councilman Larry Warino, who voted against lifting the moratorium along with Munch, asked why the council was making the change when some of the issues raised by Munch hadn’t been addressed. He noted that the Community Action Panel designed by the city to review plans still hadn’t met to discuss the project.

“To my knowledge that team hasn’t met in the last month,” Warino said.

Munch said it seems premature to lift his moratorium when Blackwater hasn’t even presented formal expansion plans to the city. He also said that although Blackwater isn’t in his district, it affects the residents there.

“With no plans on the drawing board and nothing going on, there’s no rush to move in that direction,” Munch said. “We should get our game together before we move forward.

But Councilman Ivy Rogers said Munch had no problems with moving forward with a ban last month, despite no formal plans under consideration.

“You just said it was no rush to lift the moratorium, but last month, it was a rush to put a moratorium in,” Rogers said.

Although a formal building permit hasn’t been sought by Blackwater, the company has presented the council with plans to construct three new tanks that would hold a total of about 6 million gallons of a lubricant used in oil drilling. A company official has noted that the material is not hazardous or combustible.

But Munch has said residents are concerned about how large the facility is growing and its impact on property values. He also questioned why the city would establish a review panel and not use it. Munch said that expansion of the facility will have a long-term impact on the residents in that area.

“It’s going to impact generations … Once it’s in, they fill (the tanks) with chemicals, that’s it,” Munch said.

But Councilman Melvin Guidry said the company only presented its plans to the city to find out the best way to proceed in developing the project. Instead, of receiving feedback, a moratorium was established. Green said Blackwater has worked hard to improve its profile in the city, and he believes it has succeeded. Creating a moratorium to prevent its expansion at this point isn’t right, he said.

“Those people jumped through hoops for us the last time. … The moratorium is not fair,” Green said.

The moratorium was lifted on a 3-2 vote.