Anti-coal push gets mixed results at local level _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CHAD CALDER -- A train leaves Gretna heading west along 4th St. on Wednesday, August 13, 2014.

After notching some early support from the Westwego City Council, a coalition of environmental groups fighting the prospect of coal-filled rail cars rumbling through West Bank communities on their way to Plaquemines Parish has found tougher sledding with legislative bodies in Gretna and Jefferson Parish as a whole.

The Clean Gulf Commercial Coalition and a handful of West Bank residents addressed the Jefferson Parish Council last week, looking for a resolution opposing the construction of the proposed Ram Terminals coal export facility in Myrtle Grove. Rail cars would have to travel through much of Jefferson’s West Bank to get to the Plaquemines facility.

The train opponents left the meeting empty-handed, just as they had two weeks earlier in Gretna.

The council listened politely to the group’s comments and adjourned, having a few hours earlier authorized without discussion the parish’s share of a $640,000 federal grant for an environmental study about possibly relocating sections of the railroad tracks now on the West Bank, primarily in Gretna.

Gretna and Jefferson are splitting the parish’s $53,333 share, while Plaquemines Parish and the Regional Planning Commission will pick up the rest of the required 20 percent local match.

But the residents and coalition members, including the Sierra Club, see the rails relocation as an essentially meaningless move that, even if it does come to pass, would not provide immediate relief and would not protect other communities from the health risks posed by coal dust from uncovered cars.

When the Gretna City Council gave its support to the RPC study two weeks ago while resisting calls to adopt a resolution opposing the proposed terminal, the session was far more contentious.

The council’s meeting went on for almost five hours, with much of it devoted to the coal trains issue. West Bank residents implored the council — often angrily — to join the opposition and were bewildered that the members wouldn’t pass a resolution calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an environmental study and hold hearings in several local parishes.

Councilman Joe Marino, a Gretna defense attorney, found himself at the forefront of that debate, though having to remind people that he’s not a spokesman for the railroad or a defender of the coal industry.

He said Friday that he doesn’t think the train opponents’ cause would have been helped by passing a toothless resolution opposing a project in another parish, involving railroads the city can’t control, just so the Gretna council could make a political statement about a potential problem as it’s defined by an environmental group opposed to coal.

“We’re not going to control what’s on that train, so that’s not where I’m going to concentrate my effort — (telling) the railroad what they can and can’t do,” he said. “And whatever they decide to do in Plaquemines, it’s not regulated by the city of Gretna.”

Marino said that however long it takes to move the tracks, and regardless of some residents’ skepticism — based on past experience — about the commitment of the railroad, such a move would still be a concrete solution to the real problems created by all the rail traffic that passes through the city.

Marino said he has reviewed all the information he’s been given and will continue to do so. But he said he thinks there has been a lot of misinformation in the debate and that being harangued at council meetings isn’t likely to change his mind.

By contrast, in Westwego, the City Council was quick to pass a resolution this summer, shortly after the coalition began organizing on the West Bank. The city has had its share of issues with the railroad — a special meeting this week will address complaints that trains are loudly banging rail cars together near homes, not in the marshalling area where they’re supposed to confine such activity — and the council quickly and unanimously voiced its opposition to coal trains.

Councilman Glenn Green said Friday that he had no qualms about the fact that the resolution might not have any legal effect. He said coal facilities are extremely dirty and he doesn’t want coal cars passing through Westwego on their way to a Plaquemines Parish terminal.

“We understand how hard it is to regulate anything that has to do with the railroad, but people have the right to be comfortable and to be safe where they live,” he said.

The RAM Terminals facility is still awaiting its permit from the Corps of Engineers, though that permit deals only with the project’s effect on navigable waterways. The state Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources already have approved the project, though the coalition has filed suit to get those permits thrown out and is awaiting a judgment.

In the meantime, the coalition and allied residents will continue to press local governments to call on state and federal entities to step in and conduct a full environmental study and hold hearings in affected parishes.

Devin Martin, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said Friday that groups of residents plan to attend the Gretna City Council’s meeting on Sept. 10 and the Jefferson Parish Council meeting on Sept. 17.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.