Author: Amy Green       Published: 5/13/2023     Inside Climate News

Leaders in North Port St. Joe had big plans for tourism, real estate, even a Black history museum. Then they found out, almost by accident, that elected officials had been pushing the LNG terminal for years without telling them.

Dannie Bolden grew up in this house. He and other North Port St. Joe residents dream of revitalizing their neighborhood and uniting it with the other end of town. “Because of what we see happening on the other side of town, we know it’s possible,” he says. Credit: Amy Green

Dannie Bolden grew up in this house. He and other North Port St. Joe residents dream of revitalizing their neighborhood and uniting it with the other end of town. “Because of what we see happening on the other side of town, we know it’s possible,” he says. Credit: Amy Green

PORT ST. JOE, Fla.—Not long ago, this rural coastal town in the Florida Panhandle was home to a thriving Black community, with locally owned shops and restaurants and plentiful jobs at the nearby paper mill.

Their community fell into decay after the paper mill closed in 1999, but today residents have big plans for restoring and uniting it, finally, with the white side of town.

They envision a reinvented Martin Luther King Boulevard, the main thoroughfare here, with mixed-use development, extended sidewalks and a new Black history museum. They had crafted a redevelopment plan with the community’s beachy location making tourism and real estate opportunities the centerpiece.

To support their dream, the residents had secured three grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, together totaling $850,000, for health and housing needs, repairs after Hurricane Michael in 2018 and a legacy of pollution left by the paper mill. They just garnered another one in April from the Biden administration, aimed at finding nature-based solutions for frequent flooding affecting the community.

“Because of what we see happening on the other side of town, we know it’s possible,” said Dannie Bolden, an activist who works tirelessly for the community. He grew up here and now is vice president of the North Port St. Joe Project Area Coalition, a local group aimed at redeveloping the community. He has a round face, warm smile and gray goatee.

But elected officials and a Miami-based energy company, Nopetro Energy, have other plans: a liquified natural gas plant on the same 60 acres, now vacant and weedy, where the paper mill once stood.

The LNG plant would involve three enormous refrigerators that would cool natural gas to an extreme minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit, turning the fossil fuel into a liquid. The LNG then would be loaded into shipping containers and trucked a crucial quarter mile—1,300 feet—to a dock, where a crane would hoist the containers on cargo ships destined for the Caribbean and Latin America.

The 1,300 feet is a crucial detail because it has enabled Nopetro to move forward with the plant without any oversight from federal regulators, sparing the energy company a lengthy and costly environmental review process that would have involved the public, said Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group in Washington.

Instead, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that because the LNG would be trucked rather than piped directly onto the ships waiting at the dock, the plant was outside the commission’s jurisdiction.

“If you look at the details of Nopetro’s design, they clearly worked with lawyers to intentionally design and orient their LNG terminal specifically to evade FERC oversight,” he said. “This is why this case is so insane. FERC is mangling common sense and the plain statutory language. It’s insane that we’re even having to file this lawsuit.”

Slocum believes the commission, by granting the exemption, is establishing a precedent that opens a legal loophole, making way for similar LNG plants nationwide. His organization has sued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for a review of the decision.

Meanwhile, in Port St. Joe, the proposed LNG plant has generated widespread opposition, among Black and white residents, but has benefited notably from the quiet but deliberate support of state Rep. Jason Shoaf, a local Republican. Shoaf is vice president of the St. Joe Gas Company, Inc., which connects to the massive interstate pipeline that would provide natural gas for the plant. Shoaf’s father, Stuart Shoaf, is president.

In Port St. Joe, all redevelopment plans have come to a halt in the city’s Black community so that residents can devote everything toward preventing the LNG plant’s construction, Bolden said.

“Our cultural burden for environmental injustice was already at the highest that we thought it could be,” he said, “and now they’re going to put this on top of that?”

“This community deserves better,” said Lynn Peters-Lewis, who also grew up here and moved back after retiring from a career at IBM in New York City. She lives on Peters Street, named for her grandfather. “I would like these elected officials to think deeper, embrace new ideas, be transparent about what they do and think and listen to what people who elected them want.”

LNG’s Gulf Coast Build-Out

Across the country LNG exports are booming. Until 2014 the United States did not ship any LNG overseas. Last year the country became the world’s top exporter, with eight terminals now operating and more on the way. The exports have been pushed by the oil industry, which has experienced declining domestic demand even as production has soared.

The exports also have helped European countries wean themselves from Russian gas. LNG takes up 1/600th of the volume of natural gas, making the liquid form of the fossil fuel more economical to ship.

Many of the export terminals are clustered along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, in Black and Latino communities that already are home to a concentration of polluting oil and gas terminals and petrochemical plants—the same communities that are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts like hotter temperatures, rising seas and more damaging hurricanes, said Morgan Johnson, senior staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“This industry and its build-out are really benefiting from a weak regulatory framework,” she said. “These are communities, many of which have already been really hit hard and hit uniquely hard with extreme weather events and recovering from hurricanes and storm after storm, and so for these projects to be slated in these vulnerable communities is problematic.”

Many environmental advocates say massive investments in new LNG infrastructure like liquification facilities and export terminals represent a poor strategy in the global transition toward cleaner energy because they lock in fossil fuel dependence. They say as the LNG industry expands it likely will be nearly impossible to prevent temperatures from rising above the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

North Port St. Joe

In Port St. Joe, a series of railroad tracks forms the boundaries of the Black side of town, called North Port St. Joe, segregating the community from the beachy shops and restaurants attracting tourists on the other end of town. The vacant site of the former paper mill represents another boundary, further isolating the community from St. Joseph Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

“The name North Port St. Joe tells you it has always been segregated,” said Pastor Chester Davis of Philadelphia Primitive Baptist Church, who grew up here and has lived here most of his life. A Vietnam veteran, he wore a vibrant T-shirt featuring an American flag, eagle and other patriotic symbols that contrasted sharply with his quiet demeanor. His church, a tiny white block structure, has about 60 members.

Pastor Chester Davis fought in Vietnam and now is fighting the proposed LNG plant on behalf of his community. He believes the plant “represents a destruction of what we have overcome from the paper mill.” Credit: Amy Green
Pastor Chester Davis fought in Vietnam and now is fighting the proposed LNG plant on behalf of his community. He believes the plant “represents a destruction of what we have overcome from the paper mill.” Credit: Amy Green

North Port St. Joe’s history traces to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the community’s original residents settled here for the local fishing, turpentine and lumber industries. The St. Joe Paper Company, as it was called at the time, opened the paper mill in 1938, manufacturing products like liner board and corrugated cardboard boxes. Today the St. Joe Company, as it now is known, is among the state’s top landowners, with business interests in real estate and timber. The company still owns the paper mill site where the proposed LNG plant would be located, but is a separate entity from the St. Joe Gas Company.

The paper mill predated EPA regulations and spewed fly ash and other emissions into the air while discharging arsenic, lead and other hazardous chemicals into the soil and water, according to an amicus brief filed by Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group, in support of Public Citizen’s lawsuit over the FERC exemption. Untreated wastewater was discarded into an unlined impoundment and then St. Joseph Bay. The air smelled horribly, and the bay water at the site grew discolored and unsuitable for swimming.

Perhaps most alarmingly, St. Joe Paper Company dumped mill waste like wood chips, tree bark and other debris into nearby timberlands and wetlands, according to the Earthjustice amicus brief. The company then leveled the land, divided it into lots and sold the properties to unsuspecting North Port St. Joe residents.

Today the homes adjacent to the vacant paper mill site where the LNG plant would be built continue to sink and sag, with large cracks creeping from damaged foundations, as the buried waste decomposes and settles. The neighborhood spans a few blocks and consists of newly renovated homes and old ranch-style houses that are in very poor shape, a community center, playground, restaurant and food pantry. The St. Joe Company did not respond to requests for comment.

Nonetheless, Davis remembers his childhood in North Port St. Joe fondly.

“Each family took care of each other. That’s the way I saw it as a child,” Davis said. “It was a well-taken-care-of community, because we were self-supporting. The only thing we did not have in the ‘50s was a bank. We had all the motels and places to eat and service stations. We had a few offices that were considered doctor’s offices and dispensaries.”

After the mill closed, many North Port St. Joe residents were left with few options, and the community languished. Eventually, to revive the community, some of the residents formed several organizations including the Pioneer Bay Community Development Corporation, aimed at addressing local challenges like poverty, disenfranchisement and loss of population. The residents held public meetings and raised funds with next to no help from local officials, they say. Port St. Joe City Manager Jim Anderson said leaders have invested millions of dollars in recent years in local improvements, including in North Port St. Joe.

The North Port St. Joe residents dreamed of cleaning up their contaminated land, situating their homes on solid ground and integrating Port St. Joe once and for all. The future seemed bright.

Instead, the community was in for a shock.

For Years, Locals Knew Nothing

While monitoring major legal filings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington two years ago, Slocum, the energy analyst at Public Citizen, noticed one from Nopetro asking for a jurisdictional exemption that would make way for the LNG plant in Port St. Joe, Florida.

Slocum said he immediately recognized the filing as significant, and his organization protested it. But a year later FERC dismissed the protest and granted Nopetro the exemption.

“We knew the wheels were in motion to eventually appeal this,” Slocum said. “So then we started reaching out to the local community to find out if people were concerned.”

Slocum tracked down a telephone number for Dannie Bolden of the North Port St. Joe Project Area Coalition and dialed the activist.

“‘I want to speak to you about the proposed liquified natural gas export terminal,’” Slocum recalled saying.

“‘What are you talking about?’” he remembered Bolden saying.

Bolden can be challenging to speak with because he often is called away by residents who need his help. On the phone that day with Slocum, he said knew nothing about any LNG plant in Port St. Joe. He asked for a little time and after hanging up, he said he reached out to state Rep. Jason Shoaf, who Bolden had a working relationship with.

“‘This is not going to happen,’” Bolden said the state representative told him. “‘That’s just people making stuff up.’”