No Safe Harbor

Which Louisiana community will be sacrificed for the next big shipping terminal?

Cruising in his black Chevy Suburban down the flat, mostly empty stretch of Louisiana Highway 23 just past Belle Chasse in Plaquemines Parish, Maynard “Sandy” Sanders slid his sunglasses up into his salt-and-pepper hair and looked out of his window at a small cluster of homes and trailers nestled between the road and the Mississippi River. Even from the highway, debris and damage from Hurricane Ida were still clearly visible—blue tarps covering nearly every roof. “Now this is the infamous Ironton Village,” Sanders said. “And we’re working with them, because we’re going to bring the rail in. But there’s a grave site in there.”

Sandy Sanders is the executive director of the Plaquemines Port Harbor & Terminal District, commonly known as Plaquemines Port. Part of his plans to expand the port involves putting in more railroad tracks that would increase its capacity to handle shipping containers. Sanders has a big vision. He wants to make Plaquemines Port a major player on the world’s shipping stage. “I’m going to make this port bigger than Houston,” Sanders said.

Both Plaquemines Port and the Port of New Orleans (Port NOLA) further upriver are vying for the construction of an international container terminal, a facility that will allow the ports to receive and offload the gigantic container ships that are getting bigger and bigger as they become the mainstay of international shipping—massive ships like the Ever Given, which blocked the Suez Canal for six days in March 2021.

Port Plaquemines has selected a site close to the mouth of the Mississippi River known as the “Citrus Property,” which sits right at the deepest point of the entire river. Port NOLA has its eyes set on a location in the town of Violet, Louisiana, in St. Bernard Parish. But residents near the proposed sites are pushing against the projects, citing environmental and safety concerns, quality-of-life impacts, and distrust over the ports’ long-term goals.

A native of Mobile, Alabama, Sanders served as a major general in the U.S. Army before retiring and taking over as the port’s director in August 2013. Since then, he’s had many encounters with the residents of Ironton, a small, unincorporated community founded by formerly enslaved Africans just after the Civil War. Today, it’s home to about 52 Black families, and cemeteries in the region date back hundreds of years. Residents are concerned about the port’s plans to expand rail lines, potentially laying tracks over historic grave sites.

“I had one of these Gulf South guys come out, you know,” Sanders said, referring to Gulf States Newsroom, a collaborative journalism network made up of local NPR member stations in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. “And I mean that’s OK, I don’t mind environmentalists. I like to think I’m one of them. But he asked me if I was going to run the rail right over the cemetery. I’m like, come on. No, we’re gonna honor it. We’re gonna memorialize it.”

Sanders said the port is committed to protecting the grave sites and he plans to create a 50-acre “buffer zone” around the cemeteries so they won’t be disturbed by new roads, railroad tracks, and construction. But local residents are skeptical.

“I don’t trust them at all,” said Wilkie Declouet, a former law enforcement officer and lifelong resident of Ironton. In hushed tones at the Plaquemines Parish Library, Declouet pulled up a Google Earth aerial view of Ironton on a computer. He pointed to a partially completed rail line that runs along the levee and, if finished, would cut right through a region filled with historic Black grave sites, including those of enslaved people who died on the nearby St. Rosalie plantation. Declouet said the construction of the tracks was stopped after facing local opposition, and that he and other residents of Ironton were told in community meetings that the new railroad tracks would be built along the highway in front of Ironton, thus avoiding the cemeteries.

Declouet grew up in Ironton. As a young boy, he said he and his friends and family would often go hunting in the wooded region next to the village known as the St. Rosalie property, where there are many grave sites. He said they knew where the graves were and they respected them. Declouet believes they’re at risk as industry expands in the region, and the state isn’t doing a proper job of protecting them. “You know what kills me is they will stop construction for an eagle’s nest,” Declouet said, “but they won’t stop construction for a graveyard.”

Port Plaquemines bought the St. Rosalie property in 2018 and plans to build a $20 million oil export terminal there, with new railroad service, oil tanks, and underground pipelines to transfer oil onto tankers docked on the river. But in the meantime, the company leases out the property for hunting to groups such as the Plaquemines Association of Business and Industry, or PABI. Industry leaders and allies like Sandy Sanders and Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who has a mansion along Highway 23 down the road from Ironton, have been known to shoot ducks and deer on the property that Declouet grew up hunting—but no longer can. “It’s like their little playground now. I can’t go on this property, it’s private now,” Declouet said.

Despite all of Port Plaquemines’ commitments, Declouet said he believes Sanders is still set on running tracks through Ironton. “One day, like 15 people from the railroad show up at my house and ask me what I thought would be a good route for the railroad, when we already had six meetings, and we had an agreement about where you’re going to put this railroad,” Declouet said. “So now that’s telling me that you still won’t give up and you want that area, and you want to put that railroad where you want to put it. And they’re not gonna stop until they get it.”


Wilkie Declouet

Declouet and the other residents of Ironton have good reason to be distrustful of industry and state officials. They’ve had to fight tooth and nail to survive. Under the notoriously corrupt and racist political “boss” of Plaquemines, Leander Perez, Ironton was intentionally neglected and denied essential services. Perez was a staunch segregationist who worked to disenfranchise and undermine the parish’s Black residents. Ironton didn’t even have access to running water until the 1980s—one of the last communities in the country to receive this basic resource. Some of the older residents still recall having to wait for unreliable water deliveries from the Parish, and having to collect rainwater for cooking and cleaning.

There’s also a history of companies coming in and desecrating or destroying the historic grave sites. In 1977, Louisiana Power & Light literally bulldozed over Black family tombs that were centuries old when the company was preparing to build a nuclear power plant in the region. Declouet remembers it. He was there. He said LP&L tried to blame the destruction on vandalism. In the end, nobody was held accountable.

This also isn’t the first time Port Plaquemines has faced opposition as it tries to expand rail capacity. The port has plans to build new rail lines that divert away from where they currently run through Gretna in Jefferson Parish. There, the predominantly white residents of the city’s historic district opposed the increased rail traffic brought on by a proposed coal export terminal, citing concerns over air pollution as the expanded rail line could bring mile-long trains full of uncovered coal rumbling through Gretna on its way to Ironton. With a new container terminal, that traffic would increase exponentially. Residents spoke out against the rail and Gretna City Council endorsed a plan to relocate the trains to an industrial corridor in Harvey.

Concerns about affecting residents’ quality of life is why Sanders believes Port Plaquemines is a perfect location to build a container terminal, because the Citrus Property—where they plan to build it—is largely uninhabited. The port is actually in the process of buying out the few people who do live in the area so they can relocate. Most have taken them up on their offer. Driving down Highway 23, Sanders pointed out the occasional homes scattered along the road. “We don’t want to be in people’s backyards,” he said, “so we’re slowly buying up the houses. Most of the people just want out anyway. They’re tired of the hurricanes.”

Even Declouet said he’ll likely take the deal if the money is right because of the damage he and his neighbors experienced from Hurricane Ida. The storm devastated Ironton and residents are still trying to recover. The Google Earth image Declouet was viewing on the library computer was a few years old. He pointed to a cluster of white squares on the outer edge of town—the village’s modern day graveyard. Declouet said Ida destroyed, damaged, moved, or washed away many of the tombs. “My father is sitting on this road right here,” Declouet said, pointing to an intersection in Ironton a few blocks away from the cemetery. “The whole thing floated. He’s on the side of the road right now. Right now, as we speak, there are human remains exposed to the open air.”


Coffins dislodged by a storm surge in Ironton following Hurricane Ida

The state of Louisiana’s Cemetery Response Task Force is currently working to identify and reinter the remains, but the process has been painfully slow. For Declouet, it’s another symptom of the effects of climate change—and a sign that it’s time to leave. “The weather’s changed, the Earth’s changed, and we’re not doing anything to help it,” Declouet said. “These hurricanes are getting more and more intense. Climate change is for real. It is for real.”

Declouet said not everyone in Ironton shares his views, and some may refuse to take the offer and sell their home to the port. “My wife and I had enough of this, and some people here are thinking with their heart, with their emotion, their pride,” he said. “But the thing is you got to be smart. This going to happen again.”

Further upriver, near the town of Violet in St. Bernard Parish, Port NOLA is also facing local opposition in its plans to build what it’s calling the “Louisiana International Terminal,” or LIT. The proposed facility would be able to receive the massive container ships that currently can’t dock at Port NOLA terminals because of the Crescent City Connection—the ships are too large to pass underneath the bridge. The Violet location would allow the ships to dock and unload their containers, which could then be shipped by rail. Port NOLA has five Class-A rail lines, which would allow them to handle the increased traffic.

But residents say that the proposed facility would be built in a historic neighborhood with suburban neighborhoods located on both sides of the development, destroy 1,100 acres of pollution-eating wetlands that also serve as storm buffers, and bring in an armada of more than 7,000 pollution-generating trucks per day, based on the figures put out by the port when they presented to the community in August of 2021. “I have been to ports all over the country and around the world and never have I heard of a port being located in an established neighborhood,” said Robby Showalter, a resident of Violet and the president of Stop the Destruction of St. Bernard (SOS), a group formed to oppose LIT. Showalter spent 39 years working in the shipping industry, specifically with container shipping—the kind LIT is being built to attract. “I do not believe that any one of your readers would want to have such an industrial site put in the middle of their neighborhoods,” he said.

Port NOLA said that while it purchased about 1,200 acres of land, only about 450 acres will be used for the container terminal facility. The rest will be used for “community benefit area and buffer area, and over time industry-related ancillary business.” The port also said that there are a number of variables that make it difficult to accurately estimate truck traffic, but that traffic and infrastructure is one of their biggest priorities. “Port NOLA understands concerns about truck traffic and has been at the table to identify solutions to ensure appropriate capacity and transportation infrastructure that will allow residents, local businesses, and port traffic to share the road safely,” said Renee Dolese, director of marketing and communications at the port. “As a major landowner and investor in St. Bernard Parish, Port NOLA will actively advocate for transportation improvements in St. Bernard Parish.”

The port is currently in the beginning stages of a federally regulated two-to-three year permitting process that aims to assess a wide range of impacts to both the physical and human environment at the proposed site, which it says will guide its mitigation measures. They also said they’ve made efforts to engage the community and address the concerns through initiatives such as holding open house meetings, opening a community office in Violet that people can visit to communicate with the port, and creating a “community advisory council” consisting of local residents that meet twice a month to review and provide feedback on the project.

Showalter attended a few of the meetings held by Port NOLA, and he said that while the port made a great presentation, they had “no answers when challenged on numbers and statistics.” He said that at one of the public meetings, people were so outraged that they left and the port proceeded without public input. “They even said that they are a state agency and did not have to abide by local laws or zoning requirements,” Showalter said. “That was how arrogant they were in their approach to the citizens.”

Showalter was also on the community advisory council—until he was forced to resign after SOS filed suit against Port NOLA to stop the construction of LIT. He said two-thirds of the committee was made up of people who either weren’t residents of St. Bernard Parish or had a personal financial interest in the port. “My role was to listen to them and offer suggestions, but it seemed all my points were dismissed. They did not want to hear opposing viewpoints,” Showalter said. “Actually, they made it a point to say that any decision or comment by the committee was not binding. Of course it wasn’t, it was their created group.”

Lawyers representing SOS filed public comments opposing the proposed container facility’s “Clean Water Act Section 404” permit, which regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into “waters of the United States,” including wetlands. They say LIT will have harmful impacts not only to the natural environment through the destruction of wetlands, but the human environment as well. “The construction and operations at the facility will worsen air quality, cause significant noise and light pollution in the surrounding community, and cause extensive damage to the infrastructure of St. Bernard Parish,” said Devin Lowell, supervising attorney with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, who filed the comments on behalf of SOS.

Lowell said there are also historic and cultural resources that will be negatively affected by the terminal. The project explicitly requires the moving of W. Smith Jr. Elementary School, which was a historically Black school prior to desegregation. Just down the road is the Los Isleños Museum Complex, which preserves the legacy of Canary Islanders who settled in Louisiana, a culture unique to that area. The museum also submitted comments opposing the terminal. These, along with a number of historic sites and potentially historic properties will be impacted by sticking an industrial operation next door.

“The first phase of the LIT would destroy 423 acres of wetlands in Violet. That’s undisputed,” Lowell said. “They applied for a permit to do exactly that.” Wetlands like those surrounding the proposed site provide extremely valuable ecological services to the community, in addition to their own intrinsic value. They act as a natural filter for contaminants and as a sink for floodwater, and protect the nearby community from storm surge during tropical weather. They also serve as a habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife. While the state of Louisiana is trying desperately to slow or reverse wetland loss—spending a ton of time and money on developing a “coastal master plan” for that very purpose—opponents say the LIT would replace all 423 acres of that with what is basically a parking lot covered in cargo containers.

Lowell and Showalter don’t believe the port will stop at the 423 acres they say they’ll use for the facility, either. “The permit that Port NOLA applied to the Army Corps for is also only the beginning,” Lowell said. “They have represented to the community that their full plans would see the potential destruction of more than 1,000 acres of wetlands to build out logistics and warehouse facilities surrounding the proposed terminal, each bringing with them their own environmental impacts.”

For Lowell, the real tragedy would be the destruction of the community. He said that if you look at other places where terminals like this have been placed, they cause tremendous amounts of harm. Lowell believes the pollution from the terminal operations will have health impacts on the people who live there, and that placing an industrial facility in a residential neighborhood really transforms that into an industrial area, and in addition to the environmental impacts, cultural destruction, and air, noise, and light pollution, the aesthetics of the project shouldn’t be discounted either. “Right now, when residents of Violet look out the window or drive down the street, what do they see? They see trees, forested wetlands,” Lowell said. ”If this terminal is built, they’ll see concrete, massive cranes, shipping containers, and truck after truck after truck.”

Advocates for a container terminal say it’s a critically needed facility if Louisiana is to stay competitive in international trade. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially during the supply chain crisis in 2021, the major ports of the West and East Coasts were clogged and ships couldn’t dock and unload for days and weeks at a time, so many major international shippers began looking for other ports, including those on the Gulf Coast. Places like Houston, Mobile, and New Orleans suddenly had an opportunity to become big time players in the industry.

But ports like Houston or Mobile don’t have the giant obstacle of the Mississippi River bridge that the Port of New Orleans does, and they’ve been able to easily expand and receive more of the giant supermax container vessels. Louisiana port and state officials fear being left behind as other Gulf Coast ports invest in and expand their operations. For them, it’s not a question of whether the state needs a container facility, it’s a question of where to put one.

Both Port NOLA and Port Plaquemines are adamant that they’ve got the right location for a facility. Sandy Sanders said he doesn’t have to contend with as much of the potential physical and human environmental impacts, but his port doesn’t yet have the rail lines it would need to offload those mega ships. And to get them, he’ll have to secure a lot of funding to start building—without railroading Black communities and placing them on top of historic grave sites.

Port NOLA said they’ve spent years considering several potential locations, consulting riverboat pilots, engineers, and environmental experts to choose their location. And they believe their existing infrastructure makes them the better candidate for the facility. “It makes no sense to build all the way at the mouth of the river where you don’t have the road and the rail, you can’t get labor there, and now I’m outside flood protection, and I’ve spent over $2 billion? It makes no sense,” said Brandy Christian, president and CEO of Port NOLA, at the annual New Orleans Chamber of Commerce luncheon on May 11, where she was keynote speaker. “So for us, that changed everything.”

Opponents like Declouet and Showalter believe there are alternatives that may prove just as viable, such as using modern, innovative small ships that can unload the large container vessels and transport the containers directly to the ports. But the state of Louisiana appears to be pretty adamant in its desire for a major container terminal facility. In a January 2021 joint op-ed in The Advocate, Greg Rusovich, chair of the Louisiana Board of International Commerce, and Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., wrote that “it is essential for the state and region to coalesce around a single vision, strategy, and investment plan for the lower Mississippi, from Baton Rouge through the crow’s foot of Plaquemines. If we act together, the ‘Mississippi River Complex’ can reassert its former dominance in North American trade.”

Still, some question whether the investment will yield the return the state seeks. With a new container terminal, and the potential increase in the international trade industry, would come jobs for Louisianans ranging from stevedores loading and unloading on docks, to truck drivers, forklift operators, and administrative employees, in addition to warehouse and logistical employees. All in all, trade creates more than 539,000 jobs in the state—that’s one out of every five jobs.

The question is whether or not it’s worth it. For many residents who live where these sites are set to be built, the answer is pretty clear: No—especially if there are potential alternatives, like using smaller ships, that would boost international trade, create jobs for Louisianans, and wouldn’t affect the quality of life of the people who live near the port. “What I would also say is that, does this marginal ‘competitiveness’ really warrant both sacrificing the community of Violet and destroying valuable wetlands in Louisiana’s coastal zone, at a time when the state is trying to replace and restore those same valuable resources?” Lowell said. “I don’t think so, and it seems like the people in both Violet and the larger community of St. Bernard Parish feel the same way.”


photos by Julie Dermansky
Top Image: Proposed Terminal Layout for the LIT. “This layout is a starting point. It will change as design continues.” (image from portnola.com)