08/19/2014 12:03 am ET Updated Oct 18, 2014

Gretna's Coal Train Resolution Too Tepid for Some Residents

This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the August 18, 2014 edition.

Last Wednesday evening, the Gretna City Council in Jefferson Parish approved a resolution calling for coal trains -- which could supply a planned RAM Terminals, LLC export site in Plaquemines Parish -- to be routed away from their city. That measure backs a rerouting plan by the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission. Trains run on the streets in Gretna. The Council's resolution, however, disappointed many West Bankers looking for a stance opposing coal trains and the terminal. Since track rerouting is expensive and unlikely to occur soon, Gretna residents fear that once these trains start running on the New Orleans and Gulf Coast Railway, they'll be stuck with them for awhile.

Coal trains are typically 100 to 125 cars long and uncovered. Dust blowing off them threatens human health and accumulates along tracks, causing derailments. Gretna resident Linda Sanchez told the council Wednesday night that she wants more facts. In some sleuthing, she learned from a retired railroad employee that West Bank tracks would have to be strengthened and raised at least a foot to accommodate coal cars.

"We had a train derailment several years ago, but thankfully it was grain, not coal," Sanchez said, referring to a 2010 accident in Algiers that disrupted road traffic in Gretna. Long trains and derailments delay emergency vehicles and people heading to work and school. Several of Wednesday's speakers said coal trains could prevent first responders from reaching accidents at hazardous industries along the river.

Speakers said rerouting trains to the Harvey Canal isn't neighborly because it shifts coal's threats to Harvey.

Several residents at Wednesday's meeting groused that the council's resolution deferred to RAM's plan for a terminal to export out-of-state coal. They said Louisiana, with two Plaquemines-based sites shipping northern coal now, shouldn't support this dusty business. Coal is delivered to those two facilities by river barges.

Council members said the coal RAM plans to ship will be from Wyoming. According to the Sierra Club, that coal is destined for Louisiana's ports because Pacific Northwest residents oppose dirty trains in their communities.

The Gretna council was asked Wednesday about the cost of routing trains away from the city. Councilman Joe Marino said a proposed $350 million, up to 5-year project, mostly paid for by the railroad, would reroute trains along the Harvey Canal to Plaquemines, eliminating more than 100 railroad crossings.

The cost and timeframe of that proposal are unsettling. "This 5-year plan leaves your community vulnerable," New Orleans resident Aaron Viles, deputy director at Faithful America group and a Gulf Restoration Network board member, said at the Gretna meeting. "The trains will be long and dusty. But the RAM terminal receiving the coal will have only a small jobs component." RAM has estimated its export facility near Ironton will create 120 permanent jobs.

As they wait for the rails to be rerouted, Gretna residents will get the trains but none of RAM's benefits since the jobs will be in Plaquemines, speakers said Wednesday.

Another concern is the impact of the trains and export site on south Louisiana's shrinking coastline. "The coal terminal jeopardizes coastal restoration, which we all have a stake in," Viles said. "It could pollute surrounding marshes. And RAM wants to locate the facility next to a planned river diversion, a state coastal project using funds from BP," following the 2010 spill. The Myrtle Grove Diversion to collect river sediment is included in the state's 50-year, $50 billion coastal master plan.

At Wednesday's meeting, residents said they want to hear more about the RAM terminal and coal trains from experts at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "The proposed terminal needs regulatory permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act," Army Corps spokesman Rene Poche said Thursday after the previous night's meeting. "No public hearing on the terminal is anticipated at this time," he also said.

The state's Department of Natural Resources approved a coastal use permit for the RAM terminal last fall.

After 20 residents took the podium Wednesday and said the resolution didn't go far enough, the Gretna City Council approved it anyway. That decision was met with hisses and boos from a room packed with West Bankers, many of whom were holding "No Coal Trains" signs. Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant called the resolution the beginning of a process and said a public hearing was possible.

According to the resolution, Gretna can't restrict the use of rail tracks because of federal rights of eminent domain and interstate commerce laws.

At the meeting, Carol Schlueter, publications director at Tulane University, said she had moved to Gretna after Katrina and lives six blocks from the railway. "If coal trains are allowed, I can't stay and let my health be degraded," she said Wednesday night. "It's time for the council to make a positive stance. It would be great not to have these trains at all."

On Thursday, coastal wetland specialist Scott Eustis with the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans said the cost estimate he's heard for rerouting trains from Gretna is $400 million. And he said the U.S. Dept. of Transportation didn't approve a related TIGER application submitted for only a fraction of those funds. Eustis believes an Army Corps hearing is needed on costs to the public and the environment from the terminal and coal trains. Two hundred acres of wetland forest will be affected by rerouting the trains, he said. And according to the Corps, an acre of wetland is valued at $50,000.

Residents at the meeting reminded council members that they'd voted for them and are their constituents. "This in the way democracy is supposed to work," Eustis said. "We need to hear as many voices and have as much participation and information as possible. All too often, major decisions are made in Louisiana without the public's knowledge."

The Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition, which includes the Gulf Restoration Network, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Air Alliance Houston and Texas Environmental Advocacy Services, helped organize West Bank residents present at Wednesday's meeting. end