Warren Lawrence shows the coal dust at the bottom of his backyard swimming pool in Myrtle Grove, La.Peter Moskowitz/Al Jazeera America
PLAQUEMINES PARISH, La. — When Warren Lawrence retired, he settled on Myrtle Grove, a small community of brightly colored houses sitting on stilts, 40 miles south of New Orleans, because it’s surrounded by water. The Mississippi River is on one side of Route 23, the main road, and the bayou is on the other. Lawrence’s boats are tied up out back, and he takes his small dogs on a ride through the swampland nearly every day.
He loves his way of life, he said. Except for the dusting.
On a clear, windy day, from the porch of his house Lawrence can see a cloud of black dust hanging over Kinder Morgan’s coal terminal two miles away. Lawrence — and everyone else who lives near that terminal, where up to 4 million tons of coal are exported each year — knows the cloud means a cleaning will soon be in order.
Coal coats the railings of Lawrence’s porch, the shutters on each window, the utility sink in his backyard and the bottom of his pool.
Every couple of days, he can swipe his finger on nearly any part of his house and find dust.
“You wash the deck off and just see black floating off,” he said. “Is that healthy for you?”
Now he fears the problem is about to get much worse.
But it’s unclear how much impact environmentalists can have in a state where most politicians are more likely to join a coal facility’s ribbon cutting than the picket line outside.
The oil and gas industry accounts for 35 percent of Louisiana's economy, according to industry group the Institute for Energy Research. Louisiana ships out about 20 percent of all U.S. coal exports, 12 percent of which goes to Asia, according to the National Mining Association. That, the association estimates, contributes $282 million to the state's economy annually and is responsible for about 2,750 jobs.
“I know they’re going to do whatever they want,” Battle said. “That’s government.”
Representatives from Louisiana’s Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority and the state’s Department of Natural Resources said they believed the permitting was in line with state standards. They said they could not comment on anything more specific because of the pending litigation.
RAM Terminals LLC and its parent company, Armstrong Energy, did not return calls for comment on this story.
While activists vow to continue fighting for state action, they’re also hoping that some larger forces will work in their favor.
Even supporters of coal energy acknowledge that the industry is becoming an increasingly risky investment. Cheap natural gas and government regulation have landed hard hits on the coal industry here. And experts say that other countries, even China, may face similar fates.
A pension fund backed by Goldman Sachs recently pulled out its 49 percent stake in what was supposed to be the largest coal terminal in North America. The company didn’t give a reason for the decision, but it released a report last July predicting that China’s demand for imported coal will shrink in the coming years.
And as China faces an air-quality crisis, it’s beginning to tighten its environmental regulations, making it harder for U.S. companies to profit from shipping coal there.
“Coal has been falling out of favor for a very long time,” said Thomas M. Power, a professor of natural-resource economics at the University of Montana. “Prices are down. Demand is down ... Coal companies are beginning to see the writing on the walls.”
In the meantime, as the coal industry, regulators and activists battle for the future of coal, residents in Myrtle Grove, Ironton and other communities around the Gulf say they’ll keep fighting — and keep cleaning.
“Every other day we have to dust the house,” Battle said, sitting on his back porch and looking out over the tree line where the RAM terminal may be built. “It’s a constant thing.”