Louisiana Parishes Fight over LNG Plant Profits
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Hurricane Rita was especially destructive in southwest Louisiana. Now a liquefied natural gas plant is being built there that could go a long way toward rebuilding communities, because it will contribute millions of dollars a year to local coffers, and that has set off a battle between neighboring parishes over who will get that money, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY reporting:
The small town of Cameron sits right on the Gulf Coast. After Rita, only the courthouse was left standing. The rebuilding is under way. In some places that's trucks moving out debris, but in Alvin Hebert's(ph) yard, the rebuilding is taking place by hand.
This 63-year-old boat pilot is moving cement blocks that he plans to use for rebuilding his carport.
Mr. ALVIN HEBERT (Cameron, Louisiana): I went to the doctor the other day. I have to go to the doctor for a check-up every six months. He said looks like you've been doing good. I said, If you'd have been working like me since that storm you'd be doing better too.
BRADY: Keeps you in good shape, huh?
Mr. HEBER: Yeah. Move these blocks around every day, you'll get muscles.
BRADY: Heber and just about everyone else in Cameron Parish has heard of another project underway, just about an hour north of here.
A liquefied natural gas plant is being built alongside the shipping channel. When it's done, ships loaded with supercooled liquid gas will come here from all over the world. The liquid will be turned back into gas and pipelines will move it all over the country to heat homes and generate electricity.
It's a billion-dollar project that will boost the local tax base. But there's one problem; even though it's located in Cameron Parish, this Parish won't see any money. That's because it's owned by the Port of Lake Charles, which is located and operates mostly in neighboring Calcasieu Parish.
The Port has always owned land in Cameron Parish, but mostly just so it had a place to put dredge spoils on the banks of the Calcasieu Shipping Channel. It runs the 30 or so miles down to the Gulf. Now the Port is using some of that land to build the LNG plant.
Carl Broussard is the elected Clerk of Court in Cameron Parish, but for this story, he says he's speaking as a private citizen.
Mr. CARL BROUSSARD (Cameron Parish, Louisiana): It's one thing to operate the ship channel, to maintain a right of way to your district. But it's another thing to come into our district and set up operation, which we cannot benefit, our schools cannot benefit, our roads cannot benefit, because we cannot tax. They are a tax-exempt entity of the State of Louisiana.
BRADY: A Port in Cameron Parish is suing the Port of Lake Charles, alleging that it's operating illegally in Cameron Parish. The folks in Cameron have thought of the LNG business as their own. They're offended that Lake Charles would come in and start taking some of that business away.
Mr. BROUSSARD: The people of Cameron Parish, we don't want a handout. And to get these businesses into Cameron Parish would be a boost. That's less help we've got to ask for.
BRADY: Officials from the Port of Lake Charles wouldn't talk on tape for this story, but they sent NPR a 22-page explanation of why their project is legal.
For example, they say, the law does not prohibit them from operating outside Calcasieu Parish. The document also points out that Lake Charles has been working on the LNG plant since 2003. But Cameron never objected to it, and in fact supported it, up until about a year ago. Then, after Hurricane Rita struck and the need for rebuilding money became clear, the Port in Cameron Parish filed the lawsuit. It's suing for all the money the Port of Lake Charles is expected to earn from the project.
Ronald Nunez makes change for a customer in his small store in downtown Cameron. Before the hurricane he had an auto shop, but it was destroyed. He put up a prefabricated storage shed and turned it into a store.
He says the dispute with the Port of Lake Charles has created more stress for locals.
Mr. RONALD NUNEZ (Store Owner, Cameron Parish): Yeah, they're trying to get their lives back together and then have to worry about Calcasieu coming in and doing what they're doing. So I mean if they want a good fight, wait until we get back on our feet. But I guess if you're going to take an opponent down you're going to do it while he's down.
BRADY: Cameron Parish officials say they are down, but they'll still put up a good fight in court.
Meanwhile, construction of the LNG plant continues. The company building it, Sempra Energy, says both sides still support the project; the fight is just over which side the company sends checks to once the plant is operating.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Lake Charles, Louisiana.
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