While the Port of New Orleans says it's interested in protecting jobs and preserving industry, a neighborhood group accuses the port of putting their lives and homes in danger. They are at odds over the port's efforts to renovate the Gov. Nicholls/Esplanade wharves into a cold storage facility that uses anhydrous ammonia to blast-freeze packages of chicken, which will then be shipped up the Mississippi River. Port officials say the $40 million project will retain 500 jobs and keep a longtime New Orleans company from moving elsewhere.
Chris Costello, who has lived in the neighborhood for nine years and is president of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association (FMIA), opposes the proposal. He says FMIA supports the port and New Orleans Cold Storage (NOCS), the company that will operate the facility, but is against locating it near the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny. FMIA contends the facility would bring to the neighborhood toxic chemicals, 18-wheelers and pollution, and would pose an increased threat of shipwrecks and accidents. One local blogger has described the proposal as "Bhopal in the making," referring to the industrial disaster in India, in which a chemical plant leaked gases that killed thousands. Other residents support the port's proposal and feel the design won't intrude on the neighborhood.
Port spokesman Chris Bonura says New Orleans Cold Storage has previously operated this type of facility without any major chemical leaks, and the new plant is designed to withstand shipwrecks. Bonura says that the port has always operated near residential neighborhoods, adding, "This city and this port grew up together."
With money coming from state and federal sources, the port says it has raised about half of the funding for the project. It has held two public meetings in the past year and met with neighborhood organizations to answer their concerns, but Bonura says the decision ultimately rests with the port, not the neighborhood. Costello disagrees and pledges FMIA won't give up the fight.
"People are saying it's a done deal," Costello says. "Well, it's not a done deal because there are processes it has to go through."
Anhydrous ammonia gas is a hazardous chemical. If inhaled at low doses, it will produce mild throat and eye irritation, but if a person comes into direct contact with the gas and inhales enough of it, the result can be fatal. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports there have been 224 accidents and 50 deaths attributed to the release of ammonia since 1984.
Despite its potential dangers, anhydrous ammonia is commonly used in refrigeration and has been for more than a century. Closed anhydrous ammonia refrigeration systems — the NOCS facility would use 40,000 pounds of ammonia — are required to comply with federal safety standards, including drawing up a plan to prevent gas leaks and an emergency response protocol in case a leak occurs. Bob Goodfellow, an environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, estimates there are 400 to 600 anhydrous ammonia facilities in EPA's Region 6, which encompasses Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. There are three in New Orleans, and two are operated by NOCS.
The EPA and the Department of Homeland Security conduct tests and evaluate any new refrigeration systems before a plant becomes operational. In general, Goodfellow considers the ammonia systems to be safe.
"It would depend on how they were built," he says, "but we haven't seen a lot of problems in properly designed and properly constructed systems."
Rick Fifield, a local architect and FMIA member, thinks the port did not prioritize public safety when it assessed five possible locations for the facility. As evidence, he points to the port's own project criteria for site selection, which shows public safety was not among the 11 measures employed for evaluating a location.
"There are deeper issues here than we have a simple facility that can hold three deep-draft boats at a time, which is one of their criteria," Fifield says.
Bonura says public safety is always a concern for the port. NOCS has operated cold storage facilities in the city since 1886 — including one at the Nashville Terminal that was open in the residential area from 1965 to 2003 — and has never had any ammonia-related injuries.
"It's going to be safe no matter where we put it," Bonura says. "We wouldn't put people in danger in any part of the city, so I don't see why that's site-specific."
Cost was an important factor in the port's decision. The Gov. Nicholls/Esplanade wharves are used by the port for unloading cargo and have docks built to handle the kind of deep-draft ships NOCS requires. Bonura says building docks in another location will cost an additional $100 million, driving up the price from $40 million to $140 million as well as taking much more time, a luxury the port does not have.
NOCS operates a cold storage facility at the Jourdan Road Terminal on the Industrial Canal. Before Hurricane Katrina, ships traveled up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) to reach the facility, but with the MR-GO closing, ships can only reach the Jourdan Terminal through the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (INHC) lock. Larger ships cannot pass through the lock, so only about 40 percent of NOCS's product can be handled at the Jourdan Terminal. The rest of the cargo is transported by truck to the Mississippi River for shipping.
The port says trucking the cargo to the river is costing NOCS about $45,000 a month, and the company is not willing to pay this indefinitely. "If we don't find a way to make the transportation of this cargo more efficient, it will go to another port," Bonura says.
While FMIA agrees NOCS needs a river port, the organization thinks the Gov. Nicholls/Esplanade wharves are too dangerous for the proposed operation. There is a 91-degree turn at that point in the Mississippi, and there have been instances where ships have collided with the docks, Costello says. In a letter to the Vieux Carré Commission, Capt. Clarke Hawley, a veteran Mississippi River pilot, describes the proposed location as a "virtual bullseye" for ships coming down the river.
"It's not a question of if it'll happen," Costello says, "It's a question of when it'll happen."
The port took that possibility into consideration when designing the new facility. The building is set back 60 feet from the dock, and freezers containing the anhydrous ammonia are in the back of the facility. Additionally, the profile of the riverbank below the dock ensures a ship would run aground before striking the warehouse. According to Bonura, ships have hit the Gov. Nicholls/Esplanade docks five times since 1975. The farthest a ship has extended past the dock is 41 feet, and the last accident occurred in 1990.
Besides increased river traffic, the facility will require as many as 100 18-wheel trucks driving to and from the warehouse via Elysian Fields Avenue every day. Kenneth Ferdinand, executive director of the French Market Corporation — the market is located across the street from the Gov. Nicholls wharf — says the intersection of Elysian Fields Avenue and North Peters Street, where the trucks will enter and depart the facility, is already at maximum capacity because of a large volume of pedestrian traffic.
The port disagrees with Ferdinand, and, citing a public meeting document, says peak traffic will occur in the early morning. Other truck departures will be spread throughout the day. Bonura says the project will increase traffic on the six-lane Elysian Fields Avenue by less than 1 percent.
Not everyone in the Lower Quarter opposes the NOCS proposal. Michael Moffitt, president of Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA) says his organization has extensively studied the project, and concludes the proposal is good for residents and the port. The land is legally part of the port, he says, and under the current proposal, residents can be assured of what is being handled there.
"If we don't have a chicken plant, we're going to have some other cargo," Moffitt says. "The community doesn't get involved with every ship to say, 'Well, we're not going to allow this ship to land if it has dangerous cargo.'"
It appears Moffitt is correct about who has the final say over the proposed facility. While the area is zoned "park" by the New Orleans Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, it allows for conditional uses, including maritime operations. (The city's Department of Safety and Permit's zoning administration office did not respond to several calls from Gambit inquiring about the port's zoning.)
Councilman James Carter, whose district includes the French Quarter and Marigny, says he shares constituents' concerns over safety and increased traffic, but his understanding is that the city does not have direct role in the matter.
Regardless of this interpretation, FMIA doesn't feel there has been ample discussion about the proposal. The organization is circulating an online petition against the plant and has retained legal counsel to explore the possibility of preventing its construction.
"At this point, we don't have a public forum to explore these things," FMIA's Fifield says.
It's likely the controversy isn't going away any time soon. Bonura says the port has raised only about half of the project's $40 million price tag, and has yet to determine a start date for construction.