Documenter name: Natalie McLendon
Agency holding meeting: Calcasieu Parish Planning and Zoning Board
Date: Tuesday, February 14, 2023 at 5:30 PM
Despite opposition to a hazardous project with no clear safety plan, the board voted 6-4 to allow industrial expansion near Sasol.
This meeting took place at 1015 Pithon Street in the Calcasieu Parish Government Building, on the first floor in the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury meeting room which had a full audience. Board President Kirk Smith went over policies and rules of procedure and stated that, according to the board’s bylaws, “in all cases, the proponents will be limited to ten minutes. Opponents will be granted ten minutes as well, with each speaker allowed no more than three minutes.” Smith recommended that a spokesperson should be chosen if there is a large group.
The members of the Planning and Zoning Board are appointed by and provide recommendations to the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury. Meetings are recorded by the Calcasieu Parish government channel and are available to view on Wednesdays and Thursdays following the meeting. The Parish also live streams the meetings on Facebook.
The minutes from the January meeting were approved.
- 2690 West Highway 90 in Ward Four – exception to allow a six (6) year extension of an existing borrow pit. The applicant is Daniel Perry, et ux. This property is located between Sulphur and Vinton near the Choupique Road area. In 2006 the applicant received approval to expand an existing pond from 2.5 acres to approximately ten acres with the condition that the digging be complete in four years. In 2016, they received an extension of three years to complete the pit.
The exception was granted.
- 4000 block of Houston River Road in Ward Four – exception to allow industrial development of a railroad and rail storage yard in an (A-1) agricultural zone. The applicant is Sprint Rail Partners, LLC, a Texas-based company that was registered with the Louisiana Secretary of State on November 9, 2022. The property was previously owned by the Stream Family Trust, and was sold to Sprint Rail Partners on November 10, 2022, for approximately $6.7 million. The application was completed by a representative, Basone Development Solutions, LLC. This property is northeast of Sulphur. There will be numerous tracks to store approximately 2,100 rail cars, and the rails will be at least sixty feet away from all neighboring property lines. According to the site concept plan, the railroad storage site would be partially built on “existing wetland” during all three phases of the project. To learn more about the zoning history of the property, see page 18 of the agenda packet.
The Commission staff recommends that the exception request be granted with a number of conditions: “1) that the development adhere to the site plan on file with the Division of Planning and Development, provided that the Director, or designee, may authorize adjustments to the site plan in light of technical or engineering considerations discovered during development; 2) that a Runoff Management Plan (RMP) will be required unless appropriate waiver is granted by the Division of Engineering; and 3) that permitting is subject to approval of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.”
The agenda packet contains one letter of support from LyondellBasell, two letters of opposition, and a petition in opposition with over 300 signatures.
Joshua Noworatsky, 9918 Chemical Road, Pasadena, Texas, is President, CEO, and partner of Sprint Rail Partners and the first to speak. Noworatsky says they are a family-owned company; he understands being around industry and wants to be a good neighbor. He says they have several companies where they experience environmental issues. They also have landfills. Their goal is to build a rail storage facility. With the expansion of Sasol, there is a lack of available rail storage. There is already an existing rail yard but it is full. The main product being produced is plastic pellets. He knows there is a lot of talk that this is like what happened in Ohio, but reassures the board and the audience that this is nothing like the circumstances surrounding the recent rail car accident. They will be storing mostly empty cars. There will be some with chemicals, but the majority of the full cars will be full of plastic. He says this location being immediately north of Sasol allows them to interchange there. All the derailments happened on the main line because of the speed of the train, Noworatsky said. The storage yard is limited to ten miles an hour, but typically runs at four miles per hour. The site at Sasol can hold about 1,000 cars. By having this new rail yard next to Sasol, this makes the community safer because it is close and connecting directly in. Their director of rail operations has been on the job for 40 years and the company has not had any derailments because of the safety protocols they follow. They are not a 24/7 operating facility
David Harris, lead engineer and president of LJA Engineering, is in favor of the exception and says that he has never heard of a leak, explosion, or anything like that in a railroad storage yard, and likens it to a parking lot. Harris says they work under federal railroad standards and rules and it is a safe operation.
Jonathan Dean with the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development office is in favor of the exception. Dean says they have always believed that this piece of property is best served for industrial use.
- Ed Oliver, 3013 Guillory Road, says he was told before the meeting that they cannot yield time to each other. Oliver is told that there are two minutes allowed per speaker. Oliver says the noise level will be tremendous and strongly opposes this. He does not want to be there if something should happen. He lives across the street.
- James Prater, 3700 Houston River Road, says this gigantic rail yard that no one in the area wants is a bad idea. This rail yard would be “a terrorist’s wet dream come true. There will be thousands of rail cars with every hazardous material known to man…Dangerous Terrorists like Nazis, Proud Boys, ISIS, Jihadists, Al Qaeda, etcetera, have a very nice target in a nonmoving area right there. We have enough bullseyes in southwest Louisiana and we don’t need anymore. If the explosion doesn’t get you, the gas cloud will…Accidents happen no matter how safe you are.”
- Tammye Cole, 2780 Evergreen Road, says she would like to believe everything that the rail companies say. They already have enough problems because they can’t sleep at night from the lights. Everything they have is covered in dust. Her 92 year old mother has lung problems and is on oxygen. It’s flooding their land. “We’ve heard the stories before. We’re hearing them again. We cannot survive with this going on. I’m not joking. We’ve been here all of our lives. We reside in this area and they’re from Houston. Build it in your own yard, not mine. We’re barely hanging in out there with the Sasol project. That rail track is 300 feet from my house and there is nothing but the shaking of the ground, clanging, banging.”
- Amy Richard, 2922 Guillory Road, says the proposed project is approximately 1,100 feet from her doorstep. There are other homes closer than hers. She says that 2,100 rail cars should not be permitted in such close proximity to where people live. “There are still too many unanswered questions. A 50 foot buffer of hurricane-ravaged trees is not protection. Will there be air quality monitoring in place prior to the storage of these hazardous materials? Will there be additional emergency sirens? As I understand it now, we haven’t had any sirens in place since the hurricane two and a half years ago. How will we be notified of chemical spills, leaks, explosions, evacuations? Can you assure that sheltering in place protects us from any harm that we would get from these chemicals? If you can’t, can you assure us sufficient time to evacuate?” Richard says that the value of their properties go beyond monetary and, in recent years, their way of life has been greatly changed by Sasol.
- Linda Lejeune, 3022 Summer Place Drive, says that a lot of her concerns have already been addressed. She says she does not think that they can promise there will be no explosion like Ohio. Lejuene says that I-10 will shut down if there is a leak. “It is not just about us. It’s about Lake Charles, Sulphur, Westlake, all the surrounding areas within a 25 mile area. If we have a leak like this it will not just be in our neighborhood, it will affect everybody.” Her other concern is related to the 50 foot buffer zone on Houston River Road. She says, “if there is a leak, vinyl chloride and chlorine will kill you.” She says it will affect the air and water here and this is what Ohio is dealing with now.
- Pat Bradley, 3626 Houston River Road, says her concern is the thousands this will affect and it is probable that something is going to happen. Bradley points out that Noworatsky did not state what hazardous materials will be in the rail cars. Her concern is for everyone because everyone here has a loved one in this 20 to 25 mile area. “It is lethal.” Her husband worked as an operator at Sasol before he died and she is very well aware of what is made there. “It will be a domino effect. It will take one car, just one car, and it’s gonna go on down the line. We live here. These landowners and these business people do not live here.”
- James Hiatt, PO Box 7262, “It’s just plastic pellets is what he’s telling you. It’s only just plastic pellets and empty cars. It’s not going to be true. They’re going to put whatever cars are available. Have there been alternative sites looked at? Does Sasol have enough land to put in their own rail yard? Why is this body in charge of the zoning? I’m not in control of how the police jury works, but how well advertised was this for people to know what’s being proposed, after what’s going on in Ohio? To say that the rail cars never have any kind of issue…Fisherville, about a mile and a half from here, from 1983 had several rail cars leak and spill and kill people and cause cancer. This is not some unheard of thing that happens. It’s important that you understand that what you decide today is going to impact you for a long time. I don’t think you should take it lightly…be a good neighbor.”
- Cindy Robertson, 624 West Verdine, says her family used to live on Houston River Road, and there are community members in North Lake Charles that were affected by rail car leaks in the early 80’s. Robertson spoke with some of those affected by the Ohio train derailment, and what was most distressing for them was that there was no emergency hazard plan in place. Robertson says she doesn’t see one of those anywhere in this exception rule. She wants to know what percentage of the cars will be empty and what type of chemicals will be in them. The runoff from that area “needs to be figured out ahead of time, not afterwards. If there is a leak and it gets into the Calcasieu River, we’re just adding insult to injury for all that happened with Bayou D’Inde.”
- Maurice Tynes, 4839 Ihles Road, says he was hired to speak on this exception. “This exception is illegal as requested…The exception that they’re depending on says ‘railroads.’ The United States is full of lots and lots and lots of rail yards. The most interesting one that I found is in Los Angeles where Long Beach has successfully sued Los Angeles to stop a $50 million rail yard because they felt it was too dangerous and not appropriate for that area. Although railroad is permitted in that area. One way or another, we’re going to get a legal decision.” Tynes says it doesn’t include rail yards. Tynes ends by saying he will see the board in court.
- Mr. Noworatsky says, “anything with hazardous emergency response plans will be approved.” With water runoff, that does have to be approved. They don’t know what the plan will be until they clear the land. He says he knows that he is an outsider but he understands what it is like to be a good neighbor, and his track is not any closer to the neighbors than what is already there. He says putting it next to Sasol will be safer. He understands incidents do happen, but he cares about what his company does. “I care about what we do. We want to do the right thing. We will personally walk that rail every single month…We go above and beyond what is required for safety.”
Mr. Vincent says it will be built in three phases. He says there are a lot of woodlands to the west of the site. He questions a drainage study because when the land is cleared, it will build up more water, and asks what the spill prevention plan is. Noworatsky says they do have safety plans.
Ms. Galicia wonders if this rail yard will increase rail traffic. Noworatsky responds that it will reduce the number of trains going on the main line and will be operating during normal business hours. There’s a brass bell that will be rung when personnel are near a crossing. Sasol is limited on what they have. If the rail yard is placed 20 miles away, there will be more traffic on the main line.
Ms. Winey says that Amy Richard brought up great points, especially the emergency plan. She wonders why they don’t have one. He says that they need a “site specific plan on what chemicals are going to be there, where the tracks are laid out, if they have a retention plan, but that is specific to how you design the site.” The site plan will be very specific. Winey asks if this did not pass, what would be the alternative for the company. Noworatsky says any other location doesn’t serve the purpose of the project because it will increase rail traffic the further away it is from Sasol.
The company wants to be operational by the first quarter of 2024.
The board voted as follows:
Ms. Julia Dickerson – Yes
Ms. Lutricia Cobb – Yes
Mr. Keith Dubrock – Yes
Ms. Sharon Galicia – Yes
Ms. Genelle Hyatt – No
Mr. Art Little – No
Mr. Jake Porché – Yes
Mr. Carl Vincent – No
Mr. LaSalle Williams – Yes
Ms. DeAnne Winey – No
The board voted 6-4 to approve the exception to allow for industrial expansion. The next Calcasieu Parish Planning and Zoning Board meeting will be held Tuesday, March 21, 2023.
How common are train car derailments? Where on the tracks do they most often occur?
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 859* rail accidents in 2022, and 60% of those were derailments. Out of all 2022 derailments, we found that at least 66% of those occurred on yard tracks. Georgia had the most train accidents in the United States that year, with Texas in second place, and Ohio and Tennessee tied for third. For more information on train derailments before 2022, check here.
Are there any environmental impacts from a rail storage yard?
One study of an Atlanta rail yard found that “rail yard emissions led to increases of particulate matter and black carbon.” According to a report by The Impact Project, “Operation of the trucks, locomotives, and yard equipment that service rail yards negatively affects communities’ health and quality of life with increased air pollution, noise, traffic congestion, and industrial blight.”
Will the impacted residents near the site file suit?
On March 6th, Lake Charles attorney Maurice Tynes filed on behalf of Tammye Cole et al. against the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury and Calcasieu Parish Planning and Zoning Board. In their petition, the plaintiffs made a number of allegations, among them that “all interested parties were not afforded a reasonable opportunity to express their views” at the public meeting and that …Having no comprehensive Environmental Impact Study furnished to Plaintiffs, on information and belief, and based on possible studies by the La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, and others, it is alleged that certain important and endangered wildlife species, wil be adversely, and illegally affected permanently by this huge project, and their habitat. And much of this may be “Wetlands’”
*Number does not include Amtrak accidents.