Despite the documented unmet housing needs, seven years after Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi redirected $600 million of housing funds to support a massive project known as the “Port of the Future.” The State of Mississippi proposed to transform Gulfport, a niche banana port, into a super-sized facility that would “rival the Port of Los Angeles”.
PARTNERS FOR A SAFE AND HEALTHY PORT
In response to the diversion of fund, Steps Coalition launched the Partners for a Safe and Healthy Port Campaign by hosting informational meetings in affected areas. The campaign objectives included: 1) identifying the geographic footprint of the proposed "Port of the Future" and its impact on communities health, environment, housing, economy, and historic neighborhood; 2) working with Gulfport residents to establish common goals for how this large scale development will interact with their community; and 3) ensuring residents impacted by the expansion were engaged in the planning process.
PORT CAMPAIGN COALITION
In December 2011, the Partners for a safe and Healthy Port Campaign was formalized as the Port Campaign Coalition (PCC) with key community stakeholders signing an operating agreement that provides a formal structure for decision making and gives community leaders access to attorney-client privileged documents. Steps Coalition provides administrative and organizing support to the PCC.
MEMBERS OF PORT CAMPAIGN COALITION
North Gulfport Civic Club
North Gulfport Community Land Trust
The Gulf Coast group of the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club
Soria City Civic Organization
Gulfport Branch of the NACCP
Gulf Restoration Network
THE PROMISE OF JOB CREATION FOR THE PORT OF GULFPORT: 2500 JOBS BY 2015
Instead of creating jobs there has been a net loss of at least 472 jobs after spending over $100 million. The plan for building the “Port of the Future” was expected to attract new highly competitive container contracts to the Port and double the number of jobs by 2015.
This vision for the new Port of Gulfport no longer included the existing chicken export business despite the fact that the business had a long history of success and was the ideal contract given the proximity to chicken production facilities in Mississippi and the highly qualified labor supply trained by the International Longshoreman Union. The decision made by Mississippi Development Authority and the Port Authority not to bring back the chicken businesses post Katrina cost many employees at the Port their jobs. These jobs have yet to return because as we learned during our campaign the Port’s plan was never achievable.
The Port’s plan required the deepening of the channel to make it possible for large container ships to enter the Port of Gulfport. The Army Corps of Engineers requires that the plan be economically justifiable before they can approve the project. Essentially, the Port of Gulfport would have to be able to compete with the Ports of Mobile and New Orleans. Both of these ports have advantages that would have made it nearly impossible for the Port of Gulfport to justify a significantly deeper channel. Both ports have interstates traveling inland. The Port Gulfport, by comparison has Interstate I-10 that travels coast wide instead of inland. The Ports of Mobile and New Orleans also have a robust railroad infrastructure and waterborne transportation for barges. After pressure from the PCC, the Port Authority admitted that the Port Authority withdrew the permit to deepen the channel to the Army Corps of Engineers during the cost benefit analysis.
By June of 2011, the TranSystem Report showed that without the channel deepening, the Port of Gulfport would create less than half of the required jobs. The same report showed that the Port would not be able to return to its Pre-Katrina level of 1,286 jobs. The report finding was confirmed once again in 2013 when the Mississippi Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER Committee) released a report. The PEER committee concluded "the port will be unable to meet its objective of creating and retaining 2,586 permanent direct maritime jobs by 2015."
Despite this finding, the Port of Gulfport has yet to submit to the public a new plan to meet job requirements. As a result of the Port’s failure to meet job requirements, Department of Housing Urban Development (HUD) doubled its oversight and increased reporting requirements. HUD also required MDA to enter into agreements with each business tenant at the Port of Gulfport. These agreements must indicate the specific jobs to be created or retained, provide the projected time frames for implementation, and identify the corrective actions the State will impose if the businesses do not comply with job creation requirements.
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ISSUES RELATED TO THE PORT OF GULFPORT EXPANSION
The Port’s expansion plan also required building additional infrastructure to be able attract the projected container contracts. The infrastructure included two proposed roads, expanding existing railroads and building an inland port. The proposed location for these projects was near Gulfport’s historically African American communities, leaving the already overburdened and underserved communities even more vulnerable to the health and safety impacts of increased pollution and flooding. The projects would require at least 162 acres of wetlands to be filled, resulting in the loss of flood protection for nearby residents, and would increase diesel pollution in the area by 500% because of the increased truck and rail traffic going through Gulfport and the increased number of ships burning bunker diesel, posing additional threats to public health for nearby residents.
No progress has been made on the proposed roads and an inland port. The permit for the road was vacated by order of Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerdon on November 21, 2012 because the required Environmental Impact Study (EIS) had not been completed. As for the inland port, construction has not occurred because the land purchased by the port is most wetlands and has contaminated soil and groundwater. The Port expansion project continues despite the fact that no progress has been made on the road needed to move the truck traffic and a proper location for an inland port.
The railroad, however, has been upgraded with stimulus money. The new upgrades allow the trains to load double stacked and increase travel from 10 mph to 49 mph. The trains travel through Gulfport’s historically African American communities.
The Port Authority has not required any specific measures to reduce the diesel pollution that will continue increase as it expands. The Port Authority chose not to install the ability for ships to plug into shore power, a vitally important pollution reduction technique that would protect public health and cost the $600 million dollar project only 6 million dollars.
The PCC continues to urge the Port to use shore power for ships as an important part of building a modern port. The PCC has also recommended modernizing the trucks that do business at the port, implementing idling reduction strategies, creating dedicated truck routes, reducing speed of ships as they approach the port, and switching to cleaner fuels.
In partnership with the PCC, the Mississippi Center for Justice(the Center) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL) filed a lawsuit, Governor Barbour and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) settled with the Center in 2010 for a $132 million housing program, but the port expansion issues on jobs and environmental justice were left unresolved.
Steps was effective in truth testing the Port of Gulfport’s plan of action, resulting in the Governor’s visit to the Port and his acknowledgement of the work Steps, and the lack of job creation by the Port and increased monitoring and reporting requirements by HUD. The PCC was successful in getting a resolution passed in the City of Gulfport on air pollution.
On October 24, 2013, the Steps coalition and the PCC release a documentary called “Port of the Future: Aboveboard that highlighted the controversy around the largest economic development project in the state’s history. In 2014, the new Port Director, Jonathan Daniels announced that the Port will be joining the Green Marine program, an industry driven certification program working to reduce pollution from ports.