Vacherie residents worried about tank farm prospect

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 27, 2008


Staff Reporter

VACHERIE – Just past the parish line in the northeastern tip of Vacherie lies the peaceful bedroom community of St. Philip, an area named for the adjacent Catholic church.

It’s quiet here and overwhelmingly green. The homes along the main road, St. James Street, all have sizeable, well-groomed front yards. A line of tall, thick trees provides ample shade and leads to the Sunny Acres swimming pool at the end of the street.

Behind the houses, a vast expanse of sugarcane field that was once the Crescent Home Plantation separates St. Philip from the rest of Vacherie.  

On a recent afternoon, patients were scurrying to and from Dr. Roland Waguespack’s medical clinic at the front of the street. The sky was slowly turning dark blue behind the cane field and wind chimes signaled the eminence of an approaching storm.

But for the people of St. Philip, the sinister clouds were emblematic of a much graver disturbance on the horizon of late.

This community has been stunned and shaken by the recent news of Petroplex International’s plans for a $300 million oil storage tank farm project on the old plantation property.

Even before Petroplex has filed the first permit application, many of the residents say they feel powerless and defeated.

But more than anything, they’re angry and scared.

The uproar has been fueled in part by speculation and confusion – some residents are convinced Petroplex could actually be a refinery. They’re afraid of cancer-causing emissions, water contamination, birth defects and terrorist attacks.

Additionally, many of the people here are retired and say they couldn’t just pack up and move if conditions should become hazardous. Like other Vacherie residents, they live near their families and some of them always have.

Waguespack, who has run the St. Philip Clinic for the past 40 years, said he would have to consider relocating if conditions become too unfavorable for his clinic with the addition of a tank farm.

“I’ve got to look at it from a professional angle as well, I’ve got my patients to look out for,” he said in an interview.  “I don’t think noxious conditions would be beneficial for them.”

Nearby, a breast cancer survivor, whose husband asked that she not be identified, has similar concerns.

“I don’t know if I could live here but I wouldn’t want to move,” she said. “It’s so nice and quiet here.”

But Petroplex has maintained from the beginning that its project would not adversely affect anyone in the area.

Larry Sciacchetano, a Petropolex investor and spokesman, said he recognizes Waguespack and his clinic as a vital part of the community.

 “Dr. Waguespack is going to be living next to a park and not going to be even remotely affected,” he said in a telephone interview. “There are a lot of erroneous rumors circulating, but it’s really just been our intent from the beginning to be a good neighbor.”

Sciacchetano said the first tank would be “five football fields” from the community. And he added that the aesthetics of two ponds and a double tree line around the entire facility “could set the industry standard for the future.”

But there are many here who are distrustful of Petroplex and believe something can and must be done to stop them. So the people of this tiny community have resolved to put up a fight.

Many are adamantly opposed to Petroplex, but of nearly two dozen residents interviewed for this article, only a handful would speak for attribution. Several of them still know very little about Petroplex or what a tank farm could mean for the community.

But much of the community has put its hope and trust into Michael P. Calabro, a Loyola University law student and Boston native who has founded the opposition group Community Strength. The group’s main purpose is to ask the tough questions and establish a voice for the community’s disapproval.

Calabro emerged as the group’s leader from the first day Petroplex told the community it was up to something in late April.

He has since researched the project tirelessly, contacting every elected official and organization imaginable to protest and explore potential courses of action against Petroplex. Lately, he has distributed his findings in the form of fliers and information packets so people know what to expect.

“We’re thrilled to have him spearheading this for us,” Waguespack said.

Calabro declined several requests to be interviewed for this article but summed up his sentiments in an email message: “The historic fabric of our Vacherie community is far too grand, and the citizens that have worked for its preservation far too many for [this tank farm] to be tolerated.”

At Community Strength’s most recent gathering, Wilma Subra, a chemist and environmentalist with offices in New Iberia, visited the group and discussed different options it has once the first permit applications are filed.

In a telephone interview, Subra said she had been providing the group technical assistance through the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. Subra has been involved in similar projects and has played a role in preventing companies like Petroplex from moving in where they’re not welcome.  

For now, Subra said the most important thing Community Strength can do is keep everyone informed of the potential dangers of a tank farm.

Sciacchetano said Petroplex would likely file its first permit applications with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) this week. Once that happens, residents can see for themselves exactly what Petroplex has in store.

Subra said Calabro and his group would then have ample opportunity to take action.

“They have a very good chance of stopping this if they work together,” Subra said.