Petroplex withdraws suit against Vacherie civic group

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 16, 2010



VACHERIE – A Baton Rouge company planning to build a petroleum storage facility on 1,700 acres of land along the Mississippi River in Vacherie has withdrawn a lawsuit against a group of citizens who have vocally opposed the project.

In January, Petroplex International and A3M Vacuum Services filed a defamation suit in the 23rd Judicial District Court of St. James Parish against a civic group known as Community Strength. The lawsuit claimed that the residents of the group had “undertaken a campaign to impugn the good names of the two companies through public comments at permit hearings and opinion pieces in local newspapers.”

Prior to a hearing on the suit late last month before District Court Judge Guy Holdridge, Daniel E. Becnel Jr., an attorney for Petroplex and A3M, moved to “dismiss with prejudice” the petition for damages against the group.

Becnel did not state reasons and could not be reached for comment.

Michael Calabro, a spokesman for Community Strength, said the petition, commonly known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, was an attempt to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense.

“The approach, an apparent attempt to instill fear, apprehension and mounting legal costs, is the type of bullying behavior that we have come to expect,” said Calabro, who was one of several named in the suit. “We have always made an attempt to hold (Petroplex) accountable every step of the way, and apparently that was a problem.”

Corinne Van Dalen, an attorney for the defendants from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, claimed through legal documents that “every statement listed by Petroplex and A3M in the suit as defamatory is protected First Amendment speech made regarding a public issue and in connection with government proceedings.” She further adds, “SLAPP suits are nothing but an intimidation tactic.”

The proposed Petroplex tank farm facility is still awaiting approval from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for a wastewater discharge permit. The project also requires regulatory consent from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, in addition to various licenses from St. James Parish.

The DEQ has already approved an air quality permit for the facility, but according to Calabro, members of Community Strength are still attempting to appeal the permit.

Petroplex officials have said the facility would house 63 storage tanks for crude oil, petroleum products and biodiesel ingredients. The tanks would tie into an existing pipeline, a railroad facility and a shipping port.

The first phase of the project would create about 500 jobs during peak construction and 100 permanent jobs.

The facility could ultimately end up costing about $700 million to build.