Gulfport Port Expansion Facing Questions

The blue areas are those proposed for expansion. Graphic courtesy of the USACE.For years, community leaders and organizations in the Gulfport area have been fighting to make sure a proposed expansion of the Gulfport Port, and associated projects like a connector road do not harm communities and the surrounding environment. Among other things, they’ve questioned how increased air pollution from trucks and trains, increased traffic, and a new Port Connector road will impact their communities. GRN has also played a role, especially as it relates to minimizing harm to wetlands, and water quality in Gulfport’s coastal waters.As coast residents and communities were reeling from the impacts of Hurricane Katrina, then Governor Barbour and his allies arranged for a special waiver to divert $570 million in Katrina recovery funding meant for low income housing towards the Port Expansion. State and port officials partially justified this money grab by saying that an expanded Port, aided by increased ship traffic from the expansion of the Panama Canal, would create thousands of jobs for low income residents.Now that entire rationale is in question. Last week, at a community meeting hosted by the Steps Coalition and attended by GRN’s Andrew Whitehurst, Port Restoration Director Joe Conn shocked local residents by stating that no mega-ships from the Panama Canal will be able to dock in the Port because its shipping channel is too small.This begs the questions: without business from the mega-ships, how can the Port Authority justify this massive expansion, and will any more jobs ever show up? Activists and politicians from across the spectrum have been asking these questions over the last couple of days. Port Authority officials say that smaller ships, displaced by the mega-ships at other ports, will flock to Gulfport and provide increased traffic, but that argument seems like pretty weak tea without independent economic data to back it up. The economics of this expansion have always been questionable, and this recent hubbub only drives that point home. When it comes to the environment and social justice, the picture isn’t much better. Dredging and filling ocean bottomlands could have significant impacts on coastal wildlife and the health of the Mississippi Sound’s water. And minority and low-income communities that have already borne the brunt of development and pollution in the area are being asked to once again sacrifice their health and security. Hopefully, this new revelation about the Port will lead to some soul-searching about what’s really best for Gulfport’s communities and environment.Raleigh Hoke is GRN’s Mississippi Organizer.

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