airlinehighway

10

PROPOSED RAM COAL TERMINAL - IRONTON, LOUISIANA

Audrey Trufant Salvant’s father is buried less than 50 feet from her front door, in a little mausoleum that sits like an ornament in her yard. As we walk towards it, we pass no fence, road, or anything else to signify that we’ve left her property and entered a communal gravesite. She stops a few feet before the tomb and begins to speak above the wind of a coming storm that passes through the scattered single-wides of the town. Her family, she explains, has been living in Ironton for five generations. “This is home for me,” she says. “My dad’s buried here. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Ironton is a tiny working class black community, just three large blocks spread out along the natural levee of the Mississippi River in the coastal parish of Plaquemines. There are perhaps 60 standing structures in the whole town, many of them mobile homes placed among the devastated ruins of Hurricane Isaac. Standing at the grave, Audrey boasts about the pastoral appeal of the town. We glance around and see small homes, thick woods just upriver, and open fields that run along the distant highway. A slim boy in sportsman’s camo hikes his way over the nearby levee to hunt the batture woods along the Mississippi River. A neighbor nods to us as he washes his car. For all the industry that’s encroaching on this hidden place, you’d never know it just by looking.

The Phillips 66 Alliance oil refinery is located less than two miles upriver; and the Myrtle Grove Midstream Terminal—a mid-river grain elevator—less than two miles towards the coast. A coal export terminal, characterized by massive piles of exposed coal, is three miles downriver. United Bulk, another enormous open air terminal, is right across the river from that. On rainy days, pet coke and coal runs visibly from these terminal sites and into nearby ditches and waterways. Scott Eustis, an environmental wetlands specialist who oversees coastal use permits for the Gulf Restoration Network, captured this image, showing coal runoff making its way into the Mississippi River. On dry days, the wind catches sheets of pulverized mineral dust from the massive piles that sit bare along the river and spreads them for miles around. A film of grain, coal, and particulate from other surrounding industries is evident everywhere in Ironton: on cars, on porches, and inside homes. This dust, many environmentalists and residents worry, contributes to asthma rates in the community.

After returning to Audrey’s house, we settle around her dining room table as she laments the coal-dust piles, smoke stacks, and grain elevators that surround her community on all sides. “We feel that it’s environmental racism,” she says after a pause. “You don’t see this kind of thing anywhere else in the parish other than black communities. I mean,” she stands up to run her finger along the chandelier that hangs above the table, and holds out her hand to reveal a thick cake of dark grey dust on her fingertip, “I justed dusted this thing last week.”

And the situation, she fears, may soon get worse. In 2011, RAM Terminals LLC bought 602 acres of land just north of Ironton with the goal of building yet another coal exporting facility, significantly increasing the amount of coal surrounding the community. Air monitoring by community members indicates that the air particulate pollution levels in and around Ironton are already higher than what is deemed safe by international standards. There is tangible anxiety that the construction of yet another open-air coal terminal will only continue this trend.

RAM also plans the extension of a local railroad line to make transportation faster and easier. This would mean open coal cars traveling throughout Plaquemines Parish, potentially contributing to the dust and overall air pollution. The company and the local government have not yet decided where the new rail line will go, but during a community meeting convened to discuss the plan, two of the three options presented to the community would have the train routed directly through the heart of Ironton, yards away from residences.

As this drama plays out in the small Louisiana parish of Plaquemines, domestic and international demand priorities within the coal industry are shifting. The U.S. is slowly phasing out coal-fired power plants, while coal consumption in other regions of the globe is on the rise. Coal is one of the cheapest energy sources available, and many developing nations argue that it is the fastest way to modernize their infrastructure and bring power to their population. Rapid industrialization in Asia, especially in China and India, means that the long-term survival of the U.S. coal industry is increasingly linked to consumers thousands of miles away.

Read more and hear from Ironton residents in Part 2.

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Darin Acosta has spent his entire life exploring and documenting the wetlands, oil infrastructure and forgotten blight of South Louisiana and studied urban and environmental planning at the University of New Orleans. Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development. 

Their current work, The Airline is a Very Long Road, is an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.