Opponent says project not properly vetted

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 28, 2009


VACHERIE — Michael Calabro is relentless in his opposition to Petroplex International’s St. James tank farm.

In-between studying for law school, holding down a full-time job and helping his wife raise their daughter and newborn son, Calabro talks to anyone who will listen about the hazards of the project.

“We found out about it (the tank farm) from a flyer on the front door on April 28, 2008,” Calabro said. “It said there was going to be a Q&A (question and answer) at a neighboring property … that you could ask questions and get answers.”

Calabro said just the opposite was true.

“The investors immediately got frazzled (when some questions were posed). They shut down the meeting and refused to answer anything. They said they would meet individually (with persons).”

Subsequent meetings, Calabro pointed out, were one-on-one with no witnesses to what might have been said or promised to garner support.

As those meetings progressed, Calabro founded “Community Strength,” self-described as “a collection of concerned citizens of the Saint James Parish community who oppose Petroplex International, L.L.C. and their intention to develop a petroleum and biofuels complex in our residential community of Vacherie, La.”

The group says that since April 2008, “it has been Community Strength’s objective to provide the most accurate and up to date information with regard to Petroplex International’s proposal and the hazardous impact it will have on our beloved residents and surroundings.”

Calabro lives on St. James Street, where his back yard and the tank farm property line run up against each other. St. James is a quiet street, with 20 or so homes where relatives and neighbors are one in the same. The street dead-ends into a field, but not before you drive past a swimming pool the neighborhood built years ago. St. James Street, where “NO THANKS PETROPLEX” signs were found in a majority of the yards, is an all-white neighborhood.

To the west lies Simon Subdivision and the Magnolia community — largely lower income and largely minority. Calabro says there were few Magnolia residents at a public hearing that was finally held when community resistance continued.

“The folks most in harm’s way are either elderly or indigent or both … they are the least able to participate

He estimated 400 persons attended the meeting, offering a breakdown of “a handful for, a lot of no ties, two investors and about 70 speakers who were against.

“They (Petroplex) did it (meeting) because of us,” he said. “They were taking something we pushed and tried to make it theirs.”

Calabro said its elected officials have left the community to fend for itself.

“There was a coal plant proposed in the 1980s,” he said of the area. “When it went away, the (parish) council promised (to develop) a land-use plan in 10 years. Thirty years later, there is still no plan.

“In St. James, there is no protocol … they (developers) don’t have to go to anyone. All they do is file with DEQ (state Department of Environmental Quality) and DEQ gives the permit.”

Community Strength is critical of the lack of support the parish and other elected officials have given to the vetting process for the project.

“There are so many questions that have been raised (about the project) that have never been asked (by public officials),” he said.

Last Jan. 29, when Community Strength got the opportunity to make a presentation to the parish council after what Calabro said were months of requests, their technical advisor was Wilma Subra on New Iberia. Subra is president of Subra Company, a chemistry lab and environmental consulting firm she started in 1981. Subra has recently completed a seven-year term as vice-chairman of the Environmental

Protection Agency National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology

(NACEPT), a five-year term on the National Advisory Committee of the U. S. Representative to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation and a six-year term on the EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC).

“We wanted someone who knew what they were talking about and who was respected,” Calabro explained.

The website for Commonweal (http://www.commonweal.org), a California-based non-profit health and environmental research institute, describes Subra as, “a chemist who puts her expertise to work helping residents of fenceline communities who are either protesting the existence of a nearby industry that is exposing them to toxic chemicals or trying to block the construction of one adjacent to their homes.”

Concerns raised by Community Strength that Calabro says have gone unanswered include dramatic increases in chemical air emissions in St. James Parish, including n-hexane (66 percent), Cumene (34.8 percent), Xylene (20 percent) and Benzene (13.8 percent). According to a chart provided by Calabro’s group, n-hexane causes reproductive damage, Xylene is a developmental and reproductive toxin, cumene damages liver and kidneys and Benzene is a known human carcinogen.

Community Strength’s document points out that Petroplex proposes to set back the facility 1,800-feet from River Road to the storage tanks as well as to set it back 1,500-feet from the residential areas to the east and west of the site. It is also noted Petroplex says it will plant trees and perform landscaping or take other steps to provide substantial light and sound barriers.

“What are trees going to do?” Calabro asks. “How long is it going to take a tree to grow to the point it blocks your view (of the tank farm)?”

The document also says “the fine print” in Petroplex’ 352-page minor source permit application to the DEQ says the firm can “choose to not plant trees or not perform landscaping, so to provide barriers to light and sound” and also that the firm can “expand the units of their facility onto the property adjacent to the two residential areas.”

The position taken by Community Strength is that state and local officials have not done enough to ensure the safety of both nearby residents and those who are not close by, but could still be affected by any sort of spill or emergency at the facility. The group points out a number of environmental and external costs, such as increased sheriff and fire services, damage to roads and the impact to the communities near-by.

“We’ve told people the information they are not receiving is important,” Calabro said. “The EPA has gotten involved and asked why Petroplex did not file as a major source. That they would become involved in the process is a victory in our eyes.”

Calabro said the entire process has been what he calls “enlightening.”

“But why do we have to do it? Community Strength is doing all the research and asking all the questions … the (parish) council is not doing its job.”