Coal shows up in the Louisiana coastal project

Scott Eustis of the Gulf Restoration Network holds a chunk of coal found in the Lake Hermitage wetlands creation project on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish
Scott Eustis of the Gulf Restoration Network holds a chunk of coal found in the Lake Hermitage wetlands creation project on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish

White Pelicans find a landing spot in a brand new piece of real estate.

On the west bank of Plaquemines Parish, the state has built several hundred acres of land, dredging the river bottom and delivering sand and dirt by pipeline. In 20 years, barring some force that pushes back the salt water chewing at Louisiana's coast, scientists estimate that nearly a third of the project will be gone.

State planners saw a solution in the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion. Seven times larger than existing fresh diversions, it would channel fresh water and land-building silt into the marsh.

"This isn't ever supposed to be here," said Scott Eustis, Coastal Wetland Specialist for the Gulf Restoration Network, as he held up a chunk of coal.

"Everywhere we go when we walk through the coastal restoration project, there's these dice- and golf ball-sized pieces."

Eustis said coal and petroleum coke product, a bi-product of refining, can be found dotting the Lake Hermitage site, carried there by pipe from coal export facilities and barges on the river several miles away.

"It's dirty. We're constantly cleaning it," said Warren Lawrence, a resident of nearby Myrtle Grove.

Now, Ram Terminals proposes yet another facility, which would straddle the proposed river diversion. Lawrence worries about mile-long long coal trains servicing the new terminal.

"At my age, it's not so much a concern for me, and my grandchildren and generations to come," Lawrence said. "What will be there for them?"

Eustis complains the state granted a coastal use permit for the terminal despite a study from its own scientists, which found that the terminal could cut the river flow by 19 percent.

A slower moving river would deliver less sediment through the diversion, partly defeating its purpose.

"An out-of-town coal company should not be able to waltz in and decide what happens with the state restoration program," Eustis said.

State officials cite a Memorandum of Agreement between the state and Ram Terminals to limit operations at times of high water when the diversion would run. In that case, the effect on river flow could be as little as two percent.

"The terminal itself will not affect whether or not we can operate the diversion," said Jerome Zeringue, Chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Environmentalists voice concern about how enforceable the agreement is given what they see as existing pollution problems that go unaddressed.

State officials put a new wrinkle into the argument Thursday when they told FOX 8 they have paused design work on the diversion.

Originally estimated to cost $300 million, the early engineering work suggests costs would balloon to anywhere form $600 million to $1.2 billion, depending on what construction methods the state might be forced to use.

The state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have partnered in a $12.5 million hydrodynamic study of the Mississippi River, aimed at determining the best spots for diversions.

In an interview last month, Zeringue said computer models are now being run on four possible diversion sites, including Mid-Barataria.

The state may downsize Mid-Barataria, or choose to build elsewhere.

Zeringue said the diversion could be reduced to as little as 30,000 cubic feet per second, from its original size of 75,000 cfs. However, he said models indicate diversions on a massive scale might not always be necessary to produce land.

"We were able to determine that we're able to achieve the benefits with smaller diversions."

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