Katie Moore / Eyewitness News
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NEW ORLEANS -- A coalition of environmental activists filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against a coal terminal in Plaquemines Parish. They're accusing the company of polluting the Mississippi River.

Along River Road on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, industrial facilities peek out from above the Mississippi River levee. One of them is a coal terminal owned by a company called United Bulk Terminals.

'What we're alleging is that this terminal is dumping coal into the river and they have no permits to discharge into the river,' said Devin Martin, an associate conservation engineer with the Sierra Club.

United Bulk Terminals stores coal in big piles across River Road and transfers it for transport to vessels on the river. They do the same for petroleum coke, a solidified byproduct of refining.

Environmental activists say in the process of getting it onto vessels on the river, coal and coke drop from uncovered conveyer belts on to the ground and into the Mississippi River. That's where they allege United Bulk Terminals has violated the Clean Water Act in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

'We've got years of satellite imagery showing that there's consistently piles of coal on the batcher, in the river getting washed away when the river comes up and down,' Martin said.

The environmental coalition, called the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition, is comprised of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network. All three have been taking photo and video surveys of the facility, and others along the river, for months.

United Bulk's is one of four coal terminals along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Another one, International Marine Terminals, sits on the West bank of Plaquemines. A fifth terminal, also planned for Plaquemines Parish, is also going through the permitting process to build and begin operations.

In January, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality filed a compliance order against United Bulk. The order says an investigation found they illegally dumped pollutants, by allowing them to fall from a conveyer belt, (coal and coke) into the Mississippi River and didn't immediately clean it up.

The compliance order states, 'According to the facility, the cleanup occurs as long as the river is low. When the river is high, the piles of coal and coke are submerged in water and the cleanup doesn't occur.'

Despite DEQ's recent enforcement action, the activists are moving forward with their lawsuit, saying they don't want to take a 'wait and see' approach after what they call five years of violations.

'We're hoping to get this facility to clean up and modernize and be a better neighbor to the communities that live here Plaquemines Parish,' Martin said.

United Bulk Terminals wouldn't do an interview about the lawsuit, but issued this statement Tuesday: 'We are disappointed that the plaintiffs have chosen to file suit despite our ongoing and constructive dialogue with them since they first came to us last November. We invest substantial time and money to ensure compliance with our air and water permits and have demonstrated our commitment to minimizing the impact of our operations on the environment and on the communities where we operate.

Specifically, before any contact from the environmental groups, we were in process of enhancing environmental compliance efforts and had allocated over $80 million of capital towards a facility modernization program that includes comprehensive upgrades in accordance with the latest technology and practices in terms of safety and environmental impact. We have already invested approximately $40 million in the facility's upgrades. We will continue to take our responsibility seriously to protect the environment and meet or exceed the regulatory requirements that govern our business.'

United Bulk Terminals can now file a response in federal court.

The environmental groups said Tuesday they're still hoping to work with the company to come up with a solution that's better environmentally for surrounding communities.

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