US coal’s new focus on exporting leaves a cloud of dust over Louisiana

Looking overseas for profits, industry giants are building shipping terminals that pollute nearby communities

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.

The International Marine Terminal ships about 4 million tons of coal a year from Plaquemines Parish, La.
Theryn Henkel, via Gulf Restoration Network

The domestic demand for U.S. coal has fallen in recent years as the use of other energy sources like natural gas has grown. This, combined with tighter environmental rules, means that coal companies are starting to export their product like never before: From 2002 to 2012, coal exports from the United States more than tripled, to 127 million tons, according to the International Energy Agency. The U.S. government estimates that about 25 percent of that went to Asia.

But coal companies haven’t captured enough of the international market and haven’t built enough terminals to make up for the sagging domestic demand. U.S. coal production has fallen by about 15 percent from its peak of about 1 billion tons in 2008.

With Asia’s economy growing, coal companies see the Pacific Northwest as the best location for coal terminals. But a groundswell of environmental activism in Washington and Oregon has so far blocked every major proposal. Environmentalists there have convinced state governments that the terminals aren’t worth the increased industrial blight, the health problems associated with coal dust and the degradation to natural resources associated with carting millions of tons of coal through the region and then across the ocean.

While coal companies are still trying to get permits to build near the Pacific, they’ve turned their attention to the Gulf of Mexico, where local governments and many citizens have been more accommodating to fossil-fuel industries.

There are now seven proposals for new coal terminals in Louisiana, Alabama and Texas and seven proposals for terminal expansions in those three states, according to Al Armendariz, one of the leaders of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

As the terminals are proposed and built, local activists and residents say the same environmental and health issues that persuaded legislators to stop permitting terminals in the Pacific Northwest can be seen playing out in the communities surrounding the Gulf.

The terminal down the road from Lawrence is called the International Marine Terminal. It’s owned by Kinder Morgan, the third-largest energy company in the U.S., and it’s undergoing an expansion to double its capacity.

There’s little environmentalists can do to stop the expansion of IMT because it’s already partially built and fully permitted. But just miles away from Kinder Morgan’s facility, a new terminal called RAM, owned by Armstrong Energy, is making its way through the permit process. If approved, it could increase coal exports in the area by 8 million tons. And, activists say, it could also significantly worsen the environmental issues that communities near IMT already face.

It’s not like I want to stop progress ...
But we feel like we’re a dumping ground.

Warren Lawrence

Cornell Battle Sr. sets up an air monitor provided by nonprofit Global Community Monitor to test for particulate matter outside his home in Ironton, La.
Peter Moskowitz/Al Jazeera America

Louisiana is an energy-friendly state, and many residents around IMT aren’t against the idea of coal terminals outright, but they worry about how the terminals will affect their health and their way of life.

As Warren Lawrence put it, “It’s not like I want to stop progress ... But we feel like we’re a dumping ground.”

Across Route 23 from Myrtle Grove is Ironton, an unincorporated town of several dozen small houses, most of them owned by African-Americans. It has been forgotten by the state throughout most of its history. The community didn’t receive running water until 1980, yet that hasn’t stopped its residents from loving their town. Cornell Battle Sr., a 43-year-old former government worker, decided to raise his three kids there because it’s safe and it’s so quiet, “you can hear a rat piss on cotton.”

But IMT is just a few miles down the road from Ironton, and a grain terminal sits on the other side. Battle and his family, along with many other residents of Ironton, say they’ve been dealing with serious health problems that they blame on the fine particulate matter floating through the air.

They fear the RAM terminal will only make things worse.

Battle said his three kids have asthma. He, his wife and his wife’s cousin have trouble breathing sometimes as well. Results from a 12-week air-monitoring test by local nonprofit Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) seem to confirm his suspicions that the coal terminal is to blame for his family’s health issues. The monitoring program found higher-than-average levels of particulate matter in the air. On some days, the air monitors found levels of about 30 micrograms per cubic meter — significantly higher than what the World Health Organization considers acceptable for humans to live with.

Grace Morris, an organizer for the GRN, said that with IMT, a rail extension and RAM, Ironton “will be blocked in on all sides by coal.”

Since RAM was announced, residents from Myrtle Grove, Ironton and other communities around IMT have teamed up to fight the terminals. Locals have helped organize dozens of meetings to educate residents. And the GRN sued the state for giving a permit for the RAM terminal despite a state-funded study that said it would have a direct impact on Louisiana’s government-mandated coastal restoration plan.

I know they’re going to do whatever they want.
That’s government.

Cornell Battle Sr.

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.”

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