Sweetening Nucor’s ‘iron’ pot should include quid pro quo to help save the Maurepas swamps…
by Len Bahr, PhD*
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.
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.
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 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
**Anyone interested in betting me that the air quality permit (which does not include CO2) will be denied for this project?