This is the site of a defunct paper mill in Port St. Joe that’s now targeted for a potential liquified natural gas facility. Source: Port Authority of Port St. Joe
For years, whenever I had to drive through Port St. Joe on U.S. 98, I made sure to roll the windows up tight. Even when the air-conditioning had cut out on my old rattletrap car, I made certain there wasn’t the tiniest crack for the outside air to get in.
That’s because this Panhandle town was home to a massive, and massively stinky, paper mill. Starting in 1938, it chewed up pine logs day and night and spewed out billows of foul-smelling smoke.
I once got a lungful of the stuff by accident. Once finished coughing, I was tempted to use a roll of duct tape to seal up the windows so tight it would never happen again.
Although the stench discouraged any passersby from stopping in, residents put up with it because the mill provided a decent living for a lot of them. Despite its small size, the town was so prosperous that it boasted five car dealerships and three department stores.
But in 1996 the mill’s longtime owner, the St. Joe Co., sold it for $390 million so the company could concentrate on developing its vast real estate holdings across the Panhandle. Two years later, in 1998, the new owners shut the mill down.
Some 500 people lost their jobs. Cars were repossessed. Stores closed. Residents struggled to keep their schools, firehouses, and police stations open.
Now, on the site where the old mill once stood, a new business has been proposed. It’s a liquified natural gas plant, to be run by a Miami-based company called Nopetro — which, to be honest, sounds less like a business and more like a character name from the Disney movie “Encanto.”
“Encanto” is Spanish for “enchanted.” A lot of people in Port St. Joe are definitely NOT enchanted with the Nopretro proposal.
They are fearful that it will turn out to be as dangerous as the old mill was, either strewing harmful chemicals or possibly even exploding the way a similar plant did in Texas last year.
They’re also upset because of the secretive way the owners have been sneaking it through the government approval process.
In fact, one of the people involved IS a government official: State Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Shhhhhh.
“They’ve been working on it for two years without a word coming out to the public,” Kim Miller, who runs the Port St. Joe Community Garden, told me last week.
Cue the slinky “Encanto” showstopper, “We Don’t Talk About Nopetro.”
Thanks, Ralph Nader!
That the people of Port St. Joe found out about Nopetro is (sort of) thanks to longtime consumer-protection crusader and longshot presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
In 1971, the nerdy Mr. Nader founded an organization called Public Citizen. It’s a Washington-based nonpartisan nonprofit whose website states quite seriously, “Corporations have their lobbyists. The People need advocates too.” Nader quit Public Citizen in 1980, but the organization has rolled on without him.
Public Citizen employs people to keep a sharp eye on certain powerful but little-known government agencies. One such agency is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, aka FERC — not to be confused with Fark.com, the snarky website that frequently mocks how weird Florida is.
The Public Citizen employee who watches FERC is Tyson Slocum. He’s the guy who first spotted this secret problem in Port St. Joe, so I called him up to find out how.
In April 2021, Slocum told me, he was browsing the filings at FERC when he first saw one from Nopetro asking for special consideration. The company wanted to be able to build its natural gas facility without any oversight from FERC. It particularly hoped to avoid a required environmental impact study.
Such a request is extremely unusual, Slocum said, in part because just filing that “don’t look at me” form costs $32,000.
The company’s argument, which Slocum found ridiculous, is that because the plant would be 1,300 feet from the dock that it plans to use, it does not meet the legal requirements for federal oversight.
To cite a hit song from a different Disney musical, Nopetro wanted the feds to just “Let it go, let it gooooo ….”
Public Citizen was not going to let it go. The organization filed an official objection, Slocum said, but FERC just shrugged like a slacker and said, “OK.”
Fearful that the Nopetro decision would set a precedent that other plants would copy, Slocum’s organization chose to challenge it in federal court. To do that, Slocum said, he needed to find as a plaintiff a Port St. Joe resident who’d be affected by the Nopetro plant.
But when he started calling people in Port St. Joe last year, the reaction he got was something along the lines of, “Say what now? A gas plant? Coming HERE?”
He set up a Zoom call with about 30 local residents, “none of whom had heard of the facility,” he told me. “There had been no consultation with the local community.”
However, he did find paperwork at FERC that showed that Nopetro had talked to at least a couple of elected officials who endorsed giving Nopietro what it wanted.
One of them was — surprise! — Rep. Shoaf.
In a letter sent in June 2021, Shoaf wrote to FERC that the Nopietro plant would “bring employment opportunities to the area and will create long-term economic growth for Port St. Joe. Bringing Nopetro’s facility to Port St. Joe is vital to achieve full recovery from Hurricane Michael.”
I thought the mention of the 2018 hurricane was a nice touch. Shoaf makes it sound as if Nopetro is a charitable concern doing everyone a big favor by building their plant in that spot.
Not mentioned in his letter: Shoaf and his family have a financial interest in the Nopetro plant getting built.
Y’all sing it with me, now: “We don’t talk about the Shoaf family bank account, no no no ….”
Bread for the Shoaf loaf
Here’s how the deal breaks down, as recounted last month by the Gulf County Star:
“Nopetro’s Port St. Joe facility … would filter natural gas brought in by the St. Joe Gas Co. for impurities and water before cryogenically cooling it to its liquid state, transporting it via truck to the port, about 1,400 feet from the proposed site, and shipping the LNG overseas.”
The St. Joe Gas Co. is NOT owned by the vast and mighty St. Joe Co., former paper mill operator turned real estate developer. Records from the Florida Division of Corporations show that the pipeline operator’s full name is the St. Joe Natural Gas Co.
Company officers for the pipeline company include a president named Shoaf and a director named Shoaf and — hey, look at that. The secretary of the corporation is one Jason Shoaf.
There’s a whole loaf of Shoafs grabbing for the gas plant’s bread.
Last fall, without ever mentioning his family’s financial connection, Rep. Shoaf told the Gulf County Star that he signed that letter supporting Nopetro because of “the large number of jobs he saw the business bringing to the area.”
Take a wild guess how many jobs Nopetro is planning to create for Port St. Joe. Go on, take a guess. A thousand? You’re freezing, and not cryogenically. A hundred, you say? Nope, you’re still cold. Fifty? Lukewarm. Twenty-five? Getting warm. Twenty? Warmer still.
If you said, “Only 12,” congrats! You’re red hot.
Twelve jobs. Not even a baker’s dozen!
When Shoaf ran for his seat in the Legislature, his website touted his fealty to Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, his opposition to any doctor making people wear a mask for their own good, and his concern about the sanctity of unborn life. He also promised to “unleash the power of our small business economy.”
He just didn’t mention that he’d be unleashing it primarily for his family’s benefit.
I tried three times to contact Rep. Shoaf to ask him about all this, but he never responded. So, I made up another verse of the song: “He don’t talk to reporters, no no no ….”
Not so (Mr.) Incredible
This is not the bayfront business development that the folks in Port St. Joe were hoping for, according to Miller of the community garden. They were promised the site of the old mill would become a place for shopping, open-air dining, and concerts, she said.
Finding out that instead they’d be going back to an industrial site at that spot has thrown a lot of them into an uproar.
“We were all in shock,” Miller told me. “This should not be happening like this.”
The site has problems that the Nopetro plant may worsen, she said.
“It’s in a flood zone,” she said. “And we all know it’s contaminated property.”
As an excellent story in the E&E News points out, an unsuccessful 2003 lawsuit accused the St. Joe Co. of dumping wastes containing lead, arsenic, and other toxic nastiness into wetlands that were then filled in and sold to Black residents as home sites. Their well water turned out to contain lead, arsenic, PCBs, and other foul substances, and at levels that exceeded Florida legal limits.
Since 2021, the community has received $850,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remove that contamination in hopes of spurring redevelopment. Now, the residents are feeling like another Disney hero, Mr. Incredible: “I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for 10 minutes?” Apparently not.
Nobody tell Ron “If You’re White, You’re All Right” DeSantis (because he won’t listen) but plopping dirty industrial plants into predominantly Black neighborhoods has been a fairly common practice across America.
This isn’t critical race theory — it’s a fact. The disregard shown toward pollution’s effect on the health of Black communities has been a continuing problem in Florida, too.
You can see why this new LNG plant would give everyone that feeling of déjà vu, which is French for “wooooo-ee, here we go again.”
Public Citizen has been vilified by Shoaf, among others, for sticking its nose into Port St. Joe’s business. But that organization has shown more concern for the residents than their own elected officials. The Star reported that local elected officials held their first and only meeting with Nopetro and St. Joe representatives last October — but they did it in secret, not out in the open.
“If the leaders of the community want to revive industrial activity there, they should have a conversation with the community and not do everything behind closed doors,” Slocum told me.
Public Citizen even held an open meeting in Port St. Joe last month to inform the residents about what’s in the works for their community. More than 150 people turned out to hear Slocum talk about what Nopetro had in mind for the old St. Joe site.
It’s too bad Nopetro didn’t show up too — but we won’t talk about that, no no no.
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