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Sweetening Nucor’s ‘iron’ pot should include quid pro quo to help save the Maurepas swamps…

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Figure 1. Small portion of the formerly magnificent Maurepas coastal forest, now on lts last legs. (Photo from LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources).

by Len Bahr, PhD*

Background

After WWII the residents of the Mississippi River delta made an unconscious pact, exchanging the ecological health of the largest and richest delta in North America for lucrative industrial jobs along the coast and in the gulf – oil and gas, petrochemicals, utilities, transportation, cement production, metals, shipbuilding and navigation.

The latest exemplar of this Faustian bargain is the largest economic development project in south Louisiana history, the announcement that the Fortune 500 Nucor corporation based in Charlotte, NC, paid $60 million for 4,000 acres of sugarcane fields in Convent to build a premiere industrial iron facility.

The economic up side of Nucor

Without doubt, Nucor represents a huge economic boon, at least in the short term, with 1,250 potential new jobs during the next decade. Not surprisingly in these economic times, media reporta have generally been glowing accounts of the Nucor deal. For example, The Times-Picayune recently carried a rosy Editorial and a business section article by Robert Travis Scott; and The Advocate ran a positive Nucor article by Michelle Mulholland.

The ecological down side of Nucor

Virtually every development project south of I-10/I-12 has direct and indirect coastal implications, primarily negative. Because of its scale, by the time Nucor is fully operational, its activities could significantly exceed the environmental burden that accompanies the typical economic development project in south Louisiana. Before Nucor was on the horizon Louisiana already had the largest industrial carbon footprint in the US.

Louisiana Bigfoot

Although industry shills deny it, south Louisiana also ranks number one in terms of its vulnerabiity to sea level rise from anthropogenic climate change and global warming caused by excess greenhouse gases. To his credit Matt Scallan wrote an article in The Times-Picayune that raised the pesky issue of Nucor’s potentially huge carbon dioxide emissions and the fact that Nucor operations will require an air quality permit from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.**  Nucor has apparently agreed to substitute a natural gas-fired reduced iron plant.from the original scheme to build a CO2-belching coal-fired pig iron plant.

Given the state’s dismal economic horizon, Governor Jindal and his staffers from the Department of Economic Development (DED) have no doubt tied themselves into knots in order to sweeten Nucor’s ‘iron’ pot with cane sweet subsidies and tax breaks. On September 17 Robert Travis Scott wrote an article for The Times-Picayune on the lucrative incentive package offered to Nucor. Before the ink dries on the agreements I urge the governor to consider extracting an extremely modest but vital coastal quid pro quo from Nucor.

Dysfunctional coastal forests

Beginning in the late 90s it became apparent that critical coastal forests in south were rapidly disappearing from a combination of interrelated stressors, including Mississippi River levees, navigation canals, subsidence, logging and oil and gas development. A coastal forest science working group (SWG) was recruited by the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities and commissioned by Governor Blanco. This auspicious SWG was based in the School of Renewable Natural Resources at LSU and in 2005 it issued a report, which included the following problem statement:

The Importance of Louisiana’s Coastal Wetland Forest

“Louisiana’s coastal wetland forests are of tremendous economic, ecological, cultural, and recreational value to residents of Louisiana, the people of the United States, and the world. Although some two million acres of forested wetland occur throughout Louisiana, over half are in the coastal parishes. Large-scale and localized alterations of processes affecting coastal wetlands have caused the complete loss of some coastal wetland forests and reduced the productivity and vigor of remaining areas. This loss and degradation threatens ecosystem functions and the services they provide.”

Riverwater is the key to healthy coastal forests

Exhaustive research from the world’s major deltas show that irrigation-related river water extraction, upstream dams and downstream flood protection levees doom the deltaic wetlands that fundamentally depend on over-bank flooding during high river stages. Riverborne mineral sediments, iron and plant nutrients found in Mississippi River water are essential for nourishing and stimulating the productivity of Louisiana’s dying coastal forests.

Nucor’s property occupies a unique ecological ‘gateway spigot’

Louisiana has a unique chance to garner serious environmental benefits, as well as jobs, from the newly-inked Nucor deal. In this case I envision a unique gold-clad (at least iron-clad) opportunity to integrate the largest industrial construction project in Louisiana history with the effort to save a major functional component of the delta, its coastal forests.

Figure 2. Purely by coincidence the Nucor site occupies the ideal gateway for conveying vital river water to nourish the huge Maurepas swampforest. This synergy cries out for serious consideration by company officials.

Convent Louisiana is located on the cut bank (concave) side of a major meander on the east bank of the river. Before the massive flood levees were installed by the corps of engineers beginning in 1928, such locations were prone to crevasses during river flood stages. Crevasse events deposited huge volumes of water and sediments into the delta during Spring floods; building and then sustaining freshwater swamps and marshes.

Historic crevasses sites make ideal locations for controlled river water diversion projects. The Nucor site would be the ideal location for a valve to add river water and sediments to the huge Maurepas swampforest basin, which provides incredible wildlife habitat and effective protection from hurricane surge events.

Thus, before Nucor’s engineers finalize their blueprints for the infrastructure and plumbing on their newly purchased real estate, I would urge them to entertain a proposal to reserve a very narrow canal corridor to convey river water to the backswamp. This would (1) earn serious coastal creds and an historic legacy for helping to save the dying Maurepas coastal swampforest (see Figure 2); (2) greatly burnish the company’s reputation at virtually no cost; and (3) win the loyalty of fishermen, hunters, ecotourists and flood prone residents.

Figure 3. Diagrammatic suggestion for Nucor conveyance canal.

Figure 3 shows a close up of the possible configuration of a river water conveyance canal through the Nucor tract. Providing such a right-of-way could save millions of dollars for the cash-strapped coastal restoration program.

Figure 4. Looking east on Nucor property toward the Maurepas swampforest on the horizon (Brett Duke T-P)

Figure 4 is a ground level photograph showing the proximity of the Maurepas swamps that border on the Nucor site (Photo from Brett Duke with The Times-Picayune).

*Founding editor leonardbahr@gmail.com

**Anyone interested in betting me that the air quality permit (which does not include CO2) will be denied for this project?

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  11. Mr. Bahr,

    I worked with Nucor, the State and several other parties on just such a project, going on 2 years ago now. For multiple reasons the State is more interested in a nearby but off-Nucor property for the site of the canal. Incidentally, it is pretty much exactly the spot on which you mark the canal, but you have the location of Nucor’s property incorrectly identified; that location is owned by a local farmer. I’m curious, did you try to contact either DNR or Nucor?

  12. Gregory Miller says:

    Hey Len – We’ve got a project in the works at this spot – the LCA Convent/Blind River Diversion. The Corps report is slated to be signed in December. The project is authorized in WRDA 2007 and the plan developed calls for diverting ~3,000 cfs from the river into the swamp.

    http://www.lca.gov/Projects/12/Default.aspx

    Greg

    • Greg-
      That’s good to hear. Has anyone at the district broached this with Nucor and the state? This would seem to be the perfect time to make a deal on the specific alignment of a conveyance channel, before the landscape is all spoken for.
      It would be interesting and perhaps insightful to check with Don Davis or someone else who knows the locations of historic crevasses to see where and when the last event happened near this site.
      Len

      • Kelly Haggar says:

        Volume IV – LCA Small Diversion at Convent/Blind River, Figure 3-1: Location of screened diversion routes, document page 3-34, pdf page 100 of 567.

        URL of the study (567 pages!) is at:

        http://www.lca.gov/Library/FileDownload.aspx?ProdType=12&id=2633

        Nucor was considered but they went with Romeville just a bit downriver.

        Of course all this assumes three very doubtful things;
        (1) the salt is arriving horizontally via the Chef/Rigolets instead of vertically up a fault system and (2) a mere 3,000 cfs will make a difference in a geologically sinking area and (3) a sediment transport mechanism is available which will work better than, say, the oft closed siphon at Violet..

  13. Kelly Haggar says:

    THE ‘hot button” issue in mitigation banking today is selling mutiple credits from the same activity, or, in the eyes of HQ Corps, selling the same credit over and over. Are “stream” “carbon” ‘wetlands” and “endangered species” the same thing or can you sell different credits to different applicants for different impacts off planting A tree ONE time in A spot?

    As best as I can figure out, the model contemplated by the troubled “climate exchange” fro carbon on the Chicago Board of Trade was wetland mitigation.

    I’m always fascinated by the interplay between real and imaginary products as “rent seekers” meet developers and builders. Of course all of that ultimately depends on the end user being willing (and able) to pay the freight. Even in a good housing market no one can pay $35K/ac for mitigation when raw land sells in the teens (and don’t forget the Charleston ratios driving the buy above 3:1). If the Volt is the Edsel of the 10’s perhaps we’ll all be enlightened.

  14. In addition to benefits 1 – 3 listed above, I think benefit number 4 could be carbon credits for sustaining a coastal wetland forest, aka a carbon sink. I’m sure Nucor knows that eventually they will have to live with cap n trade.

    • Hey Ezra, I beg to diffa. If Congress changes hands in Nov, then Nucor knows they may very well Not have to deal with “Cap’n’trade”.
      I agree wit’you, jus’sayin…

      • Kelly Haggar says:

        Law prof argues major green law expansion is unlikely; here’s the start of the column . . .

        JONATHAN H. ADLER
        OCTOBER 1, 2010 4:00 A.M.

        The Sorry Green Giant

        The environmental movement needs a reality check.

        http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/248284/it-ain’t-easy-being-green-jonathan-h-adler

        Clean Energy Works is closing up shop. Formed to push climate and energy legislation through Congress, the coalition of 80 environmental, labor, and other progressive groups is sending its members home empty-handed. Disoriented and dejected, Clean Energy Works’ members are awaiting the election results so they can try and “figure out how to redeploy” in the new political landscape.

        It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Green groups were ecstatic after the 2008 elections. They had the largest Democratic congressional majority in years and aggressively pro-regulatory committee chairs. The Obama administration deployed environmentalist advocates in key positions throughout the federal government, and President Obama even named an energy and climate “czar” in the White House. Environmentalists were poised for aggressive legislative and regulatory action.

        And then there was the BP oil spill. For weeks on end the nation was transfixed by the Deepwater Horizon blowout. As oil spread through the Gulf, the media were flooded with stories of the potentially disastrous economic and environmental consequences of BP’s negligent rig management.

        Environmental groups couldn’t have asked for a better example of the nation’s environmental failures — more fuel for the regulatory fire.
        In the past, environmental disasters spurred legislative action.

        – – – –

        I think Adler’s analysis is correct.

  15. The Hope Canal project has been hydrologically and every other “icology” studied for a decade or more. I’m not sure of the current status of that project, but your proposal could offer some of the same benefits and probably some of the same caveats. Thus, much of the engineering is already in place, thus creating both environmental and technical (AKA financial) savings for accomplishing this effort. Yes, The maurepas Swamp needs life support and a trade off COULD be the answer. For sure several academics could get on the grant gravy trail pretty quickly, with tons of previous research to back them up. You probably know all the players..I worked with most of them until I retired. Good luck with this.
    Rich Goyer

  16. Willie Fontenot says:

    Dear Len, You have presented some excellent ideas about some of the types of positive things which the officials in Nucor and the state should be considering. I hope that you will submit these and many more suggestions to the Department of Economic Development, Environmental Quality, Wildlife and Fisheries, Agriculture and Forestry and the Governor’s Office.

    Sincerely yours,
    Willie Fontenot

  17. Editor

    A LANDSCAPE OF STEEL & WATER
    I feel you have looked at two very normally unrelated ideas and have pulled them together in an easy to understand argument.

    Your proposal might allow the company to be economically successful while operating a state of the art metal processing facility within state of the art gravity based series of constructed wetlands, detentions, retentions and naturally designed swamp lands that which might process certain wastes, remove pollutants and convey freshwater to dyeing inland freshwater wetlands.

    I believe that a creatively designed man made water conveyance landscape could be designed at minimal cost that would provide huge environmental benefits to the region while providing a wonderful industrial landscape. This landscape might be of such unique character that employees will enjoy working here, wildlife will want to use and visitors to the River Road may just want to stop and visit the well designed natural wetlands that capture the character of our state.

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