No Containing this Battle

As the fight over a much-needed container facility continues, time is of the essence.
Stack Of Colourful And Rusty Containers In The Port Of Antwerp



Louisiana was the fifth largest state exporter of goods in the U.S. in 2018 (the latest information available) according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.


New Orleans has always been involved in international trade. But when the city was first built, the galleons and merchant vessels of the day that sailed into port ranged in capacity from around 600 to 1,500 tons. The 20-foot shipping containers loaded onto today’s megaships can, in theory, hold up to 28 tons apiece, and some of the modern, ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs) can hold more than 20,000, 20-foot equivalent units (TEU).

“Greater New Orleans needs a new container facility in order to accommodate the larger, ‘post-Panamax’ ships that are too tall to pass beneath the Crescent City Connection,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc. The bridge over the Mississippi River has become a literal barrier to the city’s goal of becoming a major player on the world’s shipping stage, and other ports in the Gulf aren’t sitting around waiting for us to catch up.

“If we do not accommodate these ships, then the future of trade for the Gulf of Mexico will belong to Mobile, which has no height restrictions, and has already passed us in container volume,” Hecht added, noting that Louisiana must build a container terminal in order to remain competitive in international shipping. “It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of international trade for Louisiana, which supports one in five jobs, hangs in the balance.”

Greg Rusovich, chairman of Louisiana Board of International Commerce (LaBIC), added that the clock is ticking.

“We’ve been dithering about this for a long time, going back and forth in terms of where and how and if, and now is the time,” he said. “Other states are not waiting. They’re making major economic development investments in ports and international trade. We need to quit delaying, and get this project done.”

Everyone wants a container facility — so what’s the hold up?

Location, location, location
The Port of New Orleans wants to build the Louisiana International Terminal (LIT) in Violet, down in St. Bernard Parish. The proposed site is closer to the mouth of the river than the port’s main operations and has enough draught—and no overhead obstructions—to receive the giant shipping vessels of the future.

Port NOLA has acquired more than 1,100 acres, initiated the permitting process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and is working on terminal designs and finalizing negotiations with financial partners, terminal operators and ocean carriers. But despite these investments and plans, the future of the proposed facility isn’t set in stone. Opposition from local residents and groups centers around the potential negative impacts the facility would bring to the region.

“The proposed project is to be developed in a historic neighborhood with suburban neighborhoods located on both sides of the development,” said Robby Showalter, president of Stop the Destruction of St. Bernard, which mounted the “Save Our St. Bernard” (SOS) campaign to oppose LIT. Showalter, a 63-year resident of St. Bernard Parish, spent 39 years in the international shipping industry, where he specifically worked with cargo containers.

“I have been to ports all over the country and around the world, and I have never heard of a port being located in an established neighborhood,” Showalter said. SOS has said the project will increase traffic and impact the environment, add to already high levels of pollution, and affect drainage in a region that was severely damaged by Hurricane Ida and will likely face more large storms in the future.

“Destroying 1,100 acres of pollution-eating wetlands and replacing it with pollution-generating trucks, ships and equipment will destroy an already sensitive environment here in St. Bernard as a result of the pollution generated from refineries located here,” Showalter said. The SOS campaign against the container facility is joined in their opposition by a lawsuit filed by residents that aims to stop the project.

“LIT would have serious negative environmental impacts and cause catastrophic damages to all citizens of the parish,” said Sidney Torres III, the attorney representing residents pro bono in their lawsuit against the Port of New Orleans. “The operations of the proposed terminal necessarily will co-opt virtually the entire public transportation infrastructure, destroy valuable wetlands and other facilities crucial to proper drainage, threaten the security of the residents and commercial concerns in the parish, and create damaging noise, light and aerial emissions, among many other public concerns.”

Port officials said they’ve been actively sharing information and learning about Violet and St. Bernard Parish residents’ issues with LIT for more than 15 months.

“Port NOLA is working with regional planners, local, state and federal delegations, as well as private partners to build a new transportation corridor for the parish to serve terminal traffic and provide an additional hurricane evacuation route for residents on the eastern end of the Parish,” Christian said, adding that recently, the port held three public open houses in the community, where attendees could voice their opinions and ask questions.

A lifelong resident of St. Bernard Parish, Torres said he believes port officials have been disingenuous in their attempts to engage with and assuage the concerns of residents.

“They’ve provided very little information on the container terminal’s impact on the local community and environment,” he said. “The information they do provide is empty PR spin. When pressed, their standard response is that it is too early in the process to know.”

In addition to environmental concerns and impacts on residents’ quality of life, opponents say Port NOLA’s proposed container facility still may not be able to receive the megaships that may soon be able to handle up to 33,000 TEUs or more.

“This location in Violet would have been a game changer 50 years ago but is not forward thinking in the world market today,” Showalter said. “The current ships that maneuver up the Mississippi River [can handle] between 3,000 TEUs and about 8,000 TEUs. The only reason that Port NOLA is looking at Violet is that it’s in their jurisdiction.”

Showalter points to the Port of Plaquemines as a better location for a container facility. He said it’s further down the river, can receive larger ships, and won’t be as much of a public nuisance. Maynard “Sandy” Sanders, executive director of Port of Plaquemines, said he has plenty of room to accommodate a facility and the large ships it would attract.

“I’ve got ample property, I’ve got the widest part of the river, I have no overhead obstructions, and I’ve got unencumbered land,” he said.

However, Port of Plaquemines doesn’t have as much rail access as Port NOLA, with its six Class-A rail lines. Railroad infrastructure is critical when it comes to unloading and shipping the containers the facility would receive.

“It’s no secret, there’s no rail,” Sanders said. “Everyone understands that, but we’re working to remedy that.” He said the port plans to build new rail lines and reroute existing ones currently running through residential neighborhoods. It’s not perfect, he said, but every port has obstacles they have to overcome.

“I’m not trying to paint the Mona Lisa over dogs playing poker,” Sanders said. “But we’re working to remedy the problems.”

Port NOLA, however, said potential sites for a container terminal have been studied for more than 25 years, including locations at and close to the mouth of the Mississippi River, and on the east and west banks of the river.

“Without question, the Violet site is the ideal location for the Louisiana International Terminal,” Christian said. “Navigation studies performed by the U.S. Coast Guard and Louisiana river pilots proved the site’s naturally deep water, navigational advantages, along with its location within the federal government’s existing 100-plus year Risk Reduction System, and proximity to the multiple interstates, illustrate Violet as the premier site for this investment.”

Time is a factor in this decision. The need for a new terminal is even more pressing in light of the supply chain issues the country recently faced, which redirected international shipping traffic away from the ports on the East and West coasts to ports in the Gulf, opening up opportunities for local ports to step up expand operations.

Everyone involved in the process wants a container terminal. Even groups opposing the Violet location recognize the necessity. In the end, the solution may not be a perfect one, but one that everybody can live with.