Westwego blocks plant expansion

After an extended period of quiet, Westwego officials are butting heads with a local chemical storage plant again, and just like in the past, the Westwego City Council has turned to a long-term moratorium to delay the facility’s expansion plans.

Councilman Ted Munch got the support of his fellow council members to establish a nine-month moratorium on the construction of chemical storage tanks in the city after council members were notified recently of Blackwater New Orleans LLC’s desire to add three new tanks to its facility near River Road. Munch’s pre-emptive strike is the latest salvo in the city’s up-and-down dealings with Blackwater, which have featured both contentious arguments and displays of goodwill.

Munch said he asked for the moratorium because residents near the facility, which is actually in Councilman Glenn Green’s district, don’t support any additional growth by Blackwater. The council approved a two-tank expansion in May, but even that came after Green established his own moratorium to halt the process.

Munch said residents are uneasy about the facility’s constant push to expand, even if the most recent plan only includes nonhazardous substances already stored at the site. Munch noted that a city board established to review plans at chemical facilities hasn’t met in months. He said that he prefers any decision on an expansion happen after city elections in April, and the possible installation of a new mayor and council this summer. Most importantly, Munch said residents just don’t want a larger facility.

“We have a lot of residents that the value of their homes is definitely affected by this,” Munch said. “(Blackwater) would use every square inch of the property if they could … A lot of residents feel that they’ve built enough.”

Blackwater and Westwego have not always had the best relationship, and the site the company occupies has been a problem for nearby residents for decades. When Blackwater came to the city roughly four years ago, the facility had issues with chemical leaks and other problems. Previous expansion plans, which included requests to store combustible materials, were met with swift and fierce opposition from residents.

But Green said those complaints have subsided, and he hasn’t had a single resident express concern about Blackwater in months. Before the city approved Blackwater’s last expansion, Green required the facility’s managers to add shrubbery and fencing and paint dilapidated tanks. Not only has Blackwater complied with those demands, but officials have purchased turkeys for the city’s underprivileged residents and purchased a new van for the city’s senior center, Green noted.

“They have been a good industrial neighbor,” he said.

He noted that the expansion likely means more jobs for city residents, and that’s crucial to Westwego’s viability. Green, who abstained from voting on the issue, thinks Blackwater has earned the right to grow its business.

“I’m business friendly. I believe we need more business,” Green said. “They did what they were supposed to do; in fact, they went above and beyond.”

Francis Marrocco, the chief operating officer for Blackwater, said the company is doing its best to be a responsible and successful company, and that includes looking for ways to grow. The three tanks would add about 6 million gallons of storage capacity to the facility and would be used mainly to hold lubricants used in oil drilling. Marrocco said Blackwater just wanted the council to get a sense of its plans now, and the company will work with Westwego officials to help them get comfortable with the plan.

“All we were trying to accomplish last night was to just put in on the table,” Marrocco said. “Our job is to make them comfortable with what we do.”