On Saturday, August 25th, before Hurricane Isaac arrived on the Louisiana coast, I was on a Southwings sponsored flight piloted by Lance Rydberg. While flying over and around coal terminals in southern Plaquemines Parish, I asked myself what happens when a hurricane comes up the river and slams its winds and storm surge into these huge mountains of dirty coal. I took extensive photos of the Kinder Morgan International Marine Terminal (KM) and its “containment” system but found no comfort in the miniscule internal levees surrounding coal piles the size of small mountains. I had a sinking feeling that something here could go terribly wrong. Then it happened.
I invite you to look at the following “before and after” slideshows so you can see what a flooded out dirty coal terminal with a failed containment system looks like from the ground and the air, and the impacts it has on the surrounding environment. As you look at the slideshows, be sure to enlarge to full-screen and click Show Info for a brief description of the images. Then, be sure to read on below for more information about the damaging consequences and GRN and our partner's fight to prevent the dirty, expensive, and unnecessary planned coal storage depot proposed by RAM Terminals, LLC, as well as the planned expansion of KM.
One of the first campaigns that I worked on for GRN was fighting for strong federal policy on climate change. The campaign was known as 1Sky (now merged with 350.org) and ending our dependence on dirty coal and other fossil fuels was one of the pillars of the 1Sky platform. Having learned quite a bit about the damage that coal does to the health of people, wildlife, and environment, I knew that I was staring down though my lens at a ticking time bomb when I took those photos.
Coal is a dirty fuel from extraction to burning and increases global warming pollution. Burning coal contributes to sea level rise and stronger storms. Louisiana’s coast is ground zero for these impacts and it is critical for Louisiana to decrease, not increase, global warming pollution. Mining, processing, transport, storage, burning, and disposing of coal waste are all a part of the damaging cycle of coal. One of the primary objections to coal export terminals like Kinder Morgan is the spread of coal dust. There is a battle waging in the Pacific Northwest against exporters that is no different than what we are fighting against in the Gulf region.
Hurricane Isaac made landfall the following Wednesday, August 29th. I spent the next three days taking pictures in and around New Orleans, but all the while I kept thinking I’ve GOT to get in the air to go check on KM and other vulnerable environmental hazards that I knew were hit hard. Finally, I caught a break and thanks to my dear friend and amazing supporter, Josephine Billups, I was able to book a flight with Southern Seaplanes on Sunday, September 2nd and get back in the air over KM and other locations.
Coal is stored in large piles at terminals, and these piles are extremely susceptible to the elements such as wind and rain. Residents in Plaquemines communities like Ironton and Myrtle Grove complain that coal dust coats their homes, playgrounds, plants, cars and boats. Coal runoff has heavy metals, sulfides, and other toxics that impair the health existing marshes and degrades water quality. It also poses significant risks to human health. It is common knowledge in coal communities that coal workers who are exposed to dust suffer elevated rates of bronchitis, emphysema, as well as black lung disease. Children who breathe in the dust while out riding their bikes, fishing with their dads or playing football are more likely to suffer from asthma. In addition, coal pile runoff may contain high concentrations of copper, mercury, iron, nickel and other constituents. The direct discharge of coal dust into water bodies, which was apparent from the photographs you just saw, threatens the health of fish and other critters. Ultimately, the entire food chain is at risk.
A few days later on September 5th and 6th, I was able to get some ground level shots of the same facility while riding past in a convoy on the levee along the Mississippi River with Joe Smyth and Jesse Coleman from Greenpeace. (Be sure to visit Joe's blog where he discusses KM's poor environmental record in the Pacific Northwest and this Sightline Institute post by Eric de Place which further exposes KM's misdeeds). On September 10th I was able to take another Southwings sponsored flight, this time piloted by Skipper Tornsmeire, which allowed for further aerial surveillance of KM.
Finally, as the United States moves away from burning coal, more of this dirty fuel is exported to China, Chile, and other countries with lower standards, and coal piles at shipping terminals in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana have grown into mountains. As GRN’s Scott Eustis’s discusses in his blog, RAM Terminals, LLC, is threatening to place another mountain of coal adjacent to and just upstream from the mouth of the Myrtle Grove sediment diversion – one of the premier land-building projects that is so desperately needed to save our coast, wetlands and communities. For more insight into the planned diversion and the fight to stop RAM, be sure to read this recent article in The Lens by contributing writer Zoe Sullivan.
PS- We are now a month out from Hurricane Isaac’s landfall in Southeast Louisiana. Many of the communities hardest hit have a long road to recovery. It is during trying times like these that we urge you to reach deep to provide much needed support for our coastal communities. If you’ve already been thinking about getting involved by volunteering or donating, here are some great organizations that could use your help.
Jonathan Henderson is the Coastal Resiliency Organizer for GRN.