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Citizens won’t back down in fight against incinerator

By Arthur Jones
NCR Staff

Neither citizens nor the local Catholic bishop are backing down in a battle to prevent the reopening in Amelia, La., of the nation’s largest toxic waste incinerator.

But immediately before Christmas, Cindy Bailey, a leader in the local Coalition for a Good Environment, said, “It looks like we lost round one.”

On Dec. 22 an appeals court in Baton Rouge refused to hear a coalition injunction filed against GTX Inc., the latest owners of the Marine Shales Processors site, closed in 1996 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for illegally operating a hazardous waste facility.

GTX is owned by the Moody family of Lafayette, La., prominent local Catholics.

St. Mary Parish County (in Louisiana, counties are named after parishes) is reportedly the second worst county in the state for toxic air emissions and among the 50 worst in the United States, critics say. The county is already host to three confirmed hazardous waste sites, say critics, 18 potential hazard waste sites, a permitted landfill, 19 unpermitted dumps, a commercial oil-field waste disposal facility, 140 closed oil and gas pits, 27 open pits, 48 salt water injection wells and more than 600 oil and gas wells.

As the local Catholic Social Services explains in a briefing update, concerned citizens of the Morgan City-Amelia area are appalled at the prospect of an operation that would pump into the air annually “69 tons of volatile organic compounds -- known and suspected carcinogens” from oils and heavy metals, releasing benzene, toluene and mercury.

Bishop joins opposition

Among citizens opposing the permit is Bishop Charles Michael Jarrell of the Houma-Thibodaux diocese.

Robert Gorman, Catholic Social Services’ executive director, has said that the diocesan position was based on a report by the Environmental Technology Council, a hazardous waste industry trade group, which is concerned with 11 specific areas of the permit. Gorman told the Morgan City Daily Review that when even the waste industry itself is concerned about the permit. “It makes me feel better about the concerns I have heard expressed and have read for myself in the [GTX] permit application,” said Gorman.

He and Jarrell were briefed on the scientific facts, he said, by chemist Wilma Subra, a permit opponent. “The company was quite upset when the bishop came out in opposition to granting the permit,” said the diocesan chancellor, Holy Spirit Sr. Miriam Mitchell, “and put pressure on him to retract, which he would not do.” There is more to the complexity.

Decision is state’s

Louisiana is a “delegated” state, an EPA spokesperson in Washington told NCR, meaning it is the state, not the federal government, that grants permits.

Further, the federal government is pumping $250 million into the near-pristine Atchafalaya Basin, which Amelia abuts, to “conserve, restore and enhance” the natural habitat to create nature-based tourism and conserve “a national wetland treasure.”

In New Orleans, Sierra Club spokesperson Sarah Craven said, “Having a hazard waste incinerator at the gateway to this Atchafalaya tourist destination is really moving us in the wrong direction.”

“From that point, we want to protect it,” said Craven. “But there’s also human health issues. The incinerator is on Bayou Boeuf, which is the drinking water source for Amelia, and GTX wants to use the bayou as a buffer zone between the incinerator and the basin.”

What’s the state of Louisiana like on environmental issues? Craven said the governor in a number of cases has shown preference for the businesses. “Politically,” she said, “it’s in the favor of GTX.”

When the state talks about jobs versus the environment, she said, the underlying issue rests on the incentive program the state has in place that encourages companies to locate the waste sites in places like Amelia.

“They get a 10-year exemption from property taxes,” said Craven, “no taxes on construction costs, and for every new person they employ, they receive $2,500.” But the figures don’t balance out, she said. In the end, the people’s health and the environment are the losers.

GTX denies charges

Company president Kevin Moody and lawyer Hank Perret, also both Catholics, said that St. Mary Parish County air pollution does not exceed federal standards, though there are counties that do, and that GTX’s 60 million Marine Shales kiln upgrade will meet those same federal standards.

Even if it were to operate 365 days a year, said Moody, the incinerator would account for only 2 percent of area emissions, whereas pre-existing incinerators alone already account for 97 percent of emissions.

He further said there will be no new discharges into Bayou Boeuf of water that has touched waste. Water will be used only for cooling.

As for the waste industry trade group findings, said Moody, “Our understanding is that it comprises several incinerators and others whose business will be affected if GTX is granted a permit.”

The citizen action is not a lost cause, said Craven, and it will likely be easier to seek court action once a permit has been granted because so many exceptions and variances will have been granted and the permit itself contains discrepancies.

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999