Salt dome project excites Richton residents

Published 7:42 pm Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bobbie Hillman never doubted that the land she and her husband bought in the 1970s with its huge underground salt deposit would one day serve a good purpose.

“I think the good Lord had a purpose for the use of this salt dome,” Hillman said this week. “Now it looks like the salt will not only help our area, but the entire country.”

Days after the U.S. Department of Energy selected the Richton salt dome as the site of its $1 billion Strategic Petroleum Reserve expansion, residents in this Perry County town still are talking about what it will mean.

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The salt dome is located on 1,500 acres one mile west of Richton on Mississippi 42. It would hold about 160 million barrels of crude oil.

“This project is definitely what everyone is talking about,” Richton attorney Mac Forsyth said. “There’s anticipating and speculation, but I’ve not talked to anyone who is not in support.”

Hillman, 80, who lives within a couple of miles of the salt dome site, said while most of the people she’s talked with are very excited about what the development will mean for the county, some have expressed concerns about the multiyear project.

“I think not knowing what’s going to happen and when it will happen is what concerns most,” Hillman said.

Hillman’s family owns the surface rights to the salt dome area, but she said no one from the Department of Energy has contacted her since the site was selected.

A retired Richton school teacher, Hillman’s only regret is that her husband, Elmer Butler Hillman, died in 2002 before the decision was made.

“He always thought that something would happen out there. I know he would be very happy to know this is happening,” Hillman said. “He loved the land and this community.”

Richton officials are not just savoring the DOE decision — the spark that will spell economic success for the town of about 1,000 and the region — but they are already at work on plans to handle the project.

“We are blessed with a progressive board of aldermen who understand that we need to act now to prepare for this,” Mayor Jimmy White said. “There’s no question our town will be impacted, but we will have the plans in place to handle this development.”

White said the best thing about the development of the salt dome will be the jobs that will become available for the area’s young people.

“With this development, we will see commercial development and that will help keep some of our young people here because there will be jobs.”

White said because of the size of the dome, it also could spur private enterprise for other projects.

While a number of jobs will be created during the construction phase — more than 1,000 are expected — residents want those jobs to go to local people.

“If it’s not going to benefit residents here, then we don’t need it,” said Dixie Bolton of Beaumont. “If they bring in out-of-town people, then we don’t need it.”

Early DOE estimates are that up to 500 people will be employed in building the infrastructure and the site. After the pipelines are built to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, about 100 people would be hired to wash out a cavern in the salt to hold the crude oil.

“They say there’s going to be 1,000 jobs, but they don’t say how many are local,” said Robert Walley of Richton.

Walley said the project does not affect him.

Figures have not been given for how much the jobs will pay.

Richton banker Bill Granberry said the expansion will help not only the area but the nation.

“This goes back a long time,” Granberry said. “I never thought it will come to this. It is amazing.”

Allison Granberry, Bill Granberry’s mother and fellow banker, said she is pleased with the announcement, but will believe it when it happens.

“I never thought this would happen, and I’ll have to see the work beginning to believe it,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., said earlier proposals to use the salt dome for storage of nuclear waste in the late 1970s and for petroleum in the early 1990s created the data DOE needed to consider the site.

Another key to the Richton site being selected among the five proposed sites was Hurricane Katrina.

“Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the vulnerability of our nation’s energy supply to disruption in the Gulf,” Pickering said. “The Richton site is far enough and secure enough from the Gulf Coast that the reserves can be accessed even when faced with Gulf weather incidents.”

As vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Pickering helped pass the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that included an amendment calling for the creation of additional storage facilities.

While Congress had mandated a 160 million barrel expansion of the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the legislation did not include a funding bill.

Pickering said Congress will provide that funding in 2007.

Construction time is estimated at nine to 10 years, and two pipelines from Pascagoula will be built.

Pickering wants to hold a town meeting in Richton in January or February to talk about the project and answer any questions residents have.