New Coal Terminal Threatens the Mississippi River’s Wetlands

As far as environmentalists are concerned, there is probably no ideal site for a new coal export terminal.  And the mouth of the largest drainage basin in the country should be the last place anyone wants to risk pollution and land loss.  The mouth of the Mississippi River is prime real estate for shipping goods, and that is exactly where a new coal export terminal may soon be built.

The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources issued a permit on October 1, 2013 for a coal export terminal to be built in Plaquemines Parish on the Lower Mississippi River.  The location of the terminal poses serious environmental threats to the surrounding wetlands, and to the Gulf of Mexico where the water flows.  Devin Martin, a conservation coordinator with the Sierra Club explained:

This terminal threatens more than our air.  It would be built adjacent to a site that the state has determined is the best possible location for a sediment and freshwater diversion project to help restore our eroding coast, the fastest disappearing landmass on the planet and the first and best protection from deadly storm surge from hurricanes.

Erosion is a critical issue for the Mississippi Delta area.  River deltas are always washing away sediment, and can usually sustain themselves by depositing sediments that have been carried downstream.  The Mississippi River watershed is the largest in the country, and the entire system drains out of the Louisiana Delta – Plaquemines Parish in particular.

Mississippi River Watershed

Map courtesy of US Environmental Protection Agency

Map courtesy of US Environmental Protection Agency

But human activity has seriously impacted this watershed in the last century.  Nearly 40,000 dams and levees built throughout the drainage basin (pictured above) prevent the river from depositing sediment as it would naturally, and this can cause problems for the watershed.  This means that the earth eroded away at the delta is never replaced.  No sediment deposit plus rising sea levels mean that the Mississippi River Delta is literally sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

National Geographic explains that as much as 70 percent of the Mississippi’s sediment has been trapped, or funneled out to sea since 1950.  The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s (CPRA)  was created in 2006 and assigned to complete a Coastal Master Plan every five years; the agency focuses on protecting land from further erosion.  The 2012 Coastal Master Plan reports that the region’s land loss is significant; 1,880 square miles have disappeared since the 1930s.  Habitat for species like the Lousiana black bear (pictured below) is disappearing rapidly.

 Louisiana black bears inhabit the Mississippi Delta region. Image Courtesy of USDA.gov
Louisiana black bears inhabit the Mississippi Delta region.
Image Courtesy of USDA.gov

Land loss is not the only problem created by the erosion of the delta.  Local wildlife depends on the wetland habitat on the coast, and as wetlands are lost, surrounding water increases in salinity (saltiness).  The increase in salt water makes the area unsuitable to many species, such as the federally endangered green sea turtle as well.

To combat both land loss and habitat instability, the state implements sediment diversion and restoration projects.  These projects rebuild coastal areas and marshlands by taking water that carries the sediment from the Mississippi and depositing it in coastal areas.  The sediment then settles and eventually builds new land.  In addition, the projects bring freshwater back to the marshlands, and help to restore the area’s natural balance of salt and fresh water.  The Myrtle Grove Sediment Diversion project is the state’s biggest coastal restoration undertaking.  The project is expected to cost $300 million and will be ongoing for years.

The Myrtle Grove project is located on the same land as the proposed coal terminal.  A lawsuit filed by environmental groups and a few private citizens focuses on the pollution hazards such terminals pose.

According to an Associated Press report; “The suit says a dock and facilities for loading, unloading and storing coal and petroleum coke would be close to two other similar facilities from which the products and their residues already fall into the river.”  It goes on to say, “In addition to threatening wetlands restoration, the suit claims, the project also could lead to plumes of coal particles being released into the air and threatening the health of Plaquemines Parish residents.”

Studies now show that environmental degradation can be costly to businesses, citizens, and governments alike due to pollution.  If the coal terminal is necessary, then so is environmental consideration to minimize its impact. Coal terminals and other facilities that support the nation’s energy needs are certainly a necessity.  But companies must find a balance between what is beneficial for the economy, and the environment. This region already experiences coal dust pollution from other coal terminals in the area.  International Marine Terminals owns a facility only a few miles away.

Plaquemines Parish Councilman Burghart Turner summed up the situation in a Department of Natural Resources public hearing August 14, 2013.  “It’s not that I’m anti-business, but this is dirt business,” he said.

Where should the line be drawn between fossil fuel energy development and environmental protection?  Is building more “dirty” fossil fuel infrastructure simply going to cost the country more in environmental degradation later?  What good are all the coal terminals in the world if they damage valuable natural resources?

Voice your opinion below!

Jessica can be found on Twitter and Google+.

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