Sunday, March 14, 2010

the buffer that wasn't

Murphy Oil entered into an agreement

on December 7, 2009, to place some of its Meraux refinery buffer property back into commerce by selling to a local businessman. The Planning Commission will conduct a Public Hearing Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 4pm in the St Bernard Parish Council Chambers.

The Planning and Zoning Docket includes an application by Murphy Oil to change the zoning of three residential lots to 'Neighborhood Commercial.' Residents want to keep the Commercial out of the Neighborhood with NO SPOT ZONING.

Sold to Murphy Oil through the voluntary buyout program of Turner v Murphy, the class action suit for the Hurricane Katrina related crude oil spill, most of the residential buyup property's reassessments lowered property taxes. Local tax assessor explained to residents the reassessment of the buyup properties reflected the value of greenspace.

With all residential real estate purchased pursuant Turner vs Murphy, the homes were demolished; in the process, sidewalks were damaged and removed.

Located within blocks of the community’s only high school, residents of this school-zoned neighborhood have requested Murphy Oil be a good neighbor and replace the sidewalks. Sidewalks provide the children with a safe place to play, other than the streets -- the same streets some propose to add more industrial traffic.

With a mere pipeline easement between the neighborhood and refinery, Murphy Oil was also asked to make simple and readily available improvements to its fenceline. Trees on the Murphy Oil-owned lots have, over time, not received adequate care. Neighbors fear wind storms and hurricanes will take a toll on the unkempt branches, causing damage to homes.

With little else to protect them from the most hazardous processing side of the Murphy Oil Meraux refinery, residents have cause for concern. Murphy Oil was asked to be a good neighbor and make some Basic Fence Repairs .

In the Parish of St Bernard, local zoning allows heavy industrial usage within 100 feet of residential. Commercial usage which abuts residential is required to be within footage equal to that of residential lots; 70 feet on the particular street of the pending docket.

Having no intentions of selling now, many homeowners who restored houses and revitalized the neighborhood had returned in 2005, long before the buyout program began in 2007.

Rebuilding not only after mother nature’s hardest hit, but also after the worse land-based oil spill, neighbors reestablished the community they’ve called home all their lives. And, they want the equal protection for secure tenure and from spot zoning as any other neighborhood.

Murphy Oil's zoning change proposal as an improvement for the community leaves residents wondering what other plans Murphy Oil is making for the future without telling their neighbors.

The Public Hearing on Tuesday will provide the Planning Commissioners an opportunity to hear from the citizenry and make recommendations to the Parish Council. Lacking jurisdiction to interpret court decisions which created the buyout program and prohibited by Home Rule Charter to breech agreements between property owners, the Parish Council has final vote on zoning changes to the Master Land Use Plan . A plan which calls for green belts around refineries.

Murphy Oil’s petition to change zoning from residential R1 to Neighborhood Commercial C1 is a condition of its agreement with a local business owner, who agreed to purchase the rezoned land at $10,000 per lot. Murphy Oil originally purchased these three home-site lots for $94,560, $53,040, and $44,000 through the court order which stated the intent of the buyout is to create a buffer.

Subsequent to Turner v Murphy Orders and Reasons, the court ruled in 2009 the defendant could use up to $2 million to settle out of class cases stemming from the same spill. Additionally, a cy pres committee will determine how Murphy Oil may donate up to another $3 million dollars remaining from the court required $55 million set aside for the voluntary buyout program. Several million was used to purchase commercial property and Murphy Oil has converted one such property into its new Administration Building, located further west from the plant and outside the designated buyout zone.

The cy pres committee, appointed by Judge Fallon, includes Plaintiffs Liaison Counsel attorney Sidney Torres and Murphy Oil Public Relations Manager Carl Zornes.

Without representation in court, nor on the cy pres committee, it is difficult to understand how any future ruling may adversely effect our community. Offensive incursion tactics, including Murphy Oil's petition for heavy industrial zoning in the neighborhood to construct a petrochemical testing laboratory, spurred residents to contact the Plaintiffs Liaison Counsel (PSC). According to these plaintiffs, each was informed by PSC attorney Sidney Torres, if you were a class member and received your check for the crude oil spill case Turner v Murphy, then you are no longer represented by the PSC.

During the May 2009 court hearing to use buyout funds for out of class cases, residents requested Judge Fallon take under consideration this term greenspace.

Murphy Oil's intent of a green zone buffer and creation of greenspace from the buyout properties was stated by their defense attorney in the January 2007 Fairness Hearing. The term Greenspace was repeatedly and consistently used as the basis for our consent to the settlement agreement. Greenspace is what we all understood to be the intended use of the buyout properties and agreements were made based upon this understanding. Judge Fallon was asked to clarify that it is the empty space which exists now, this greenspace, which is to function as the buffer. The court was further asked to consider that any other use by Murphy Oil not only results in lowering the buffer, bringing more hazards closer to our homes, but it also gifts an unjust enrichment to the defendant, which is not beneficial to the class.

As of this date, the Judge has not responded.

Stating this recent activity by Murphy Oil to sell buyout property constitutes a breech of settlement, some residents again wrote Federal Judge Fallon.

In the meantime, Murphy Oil should recognize the need to do more than other refineries which are properly buffered from surrounding communities.

Murphy Oil's buffer for its Meraux refinery in St Bernard Parish lacks any publicly known plans for a buffer on the eastern side of the refinery. The property owners on this eastern side were not included in Turner v Murphy, as it was explained the oil did not go east. The east side of the refinery not only stores gasoline in tanks which have yet to receive a post Katrina upgrade, but is also too closely situated to a demographically and financially different neighborhood.

As any Gulf Coast resident can attest, you must have an adequate storm preparedness plan. Storm and spill preparedness and prevention is something Murphy Oil claimed to have, but did not implement for infamous Tank 250-2 prior to landfall of Hurricane Katrina.

The June 2009 rain event and subsequent flooding of our neighborhood by the refinery, coupled with the December 2009 oily discharge into our neighborhood canal, highlights the deficiencies in Murphy Oil's spill containment plans and waste water treatment plant.

A separate case in Federal Court found Murphy Oil to have violated their Title V Air Permits. The Citizen's Enforcement Suit: CCAM v Murphy Oil , ruling stated the residents had "demonstrated that Murphy repeatedly violates the Clean Air Act and that, unless some action is taken to prevent the illegal conduct, there is a real threat that such violations will continue to occur."

The root cause of these violations will not be corrected through real estate transactions. Operating on a more responsible level is expected, not only from Murphy Oil, but from all businesses that have returned to operation in St Bernard Parish.

Murphy Oil could contibute to St Bernard Parish's promising future through a daily commitment to operations, one which demonstrates respect for the residents who live on the other side of the fenceline.

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