The Gretna City Council on Wednesday surprised its critics from a month ago and unanimously approved a resolution asking for an environmental study of the effects of a proposed coal export facility in Plaquemines Parish.
The resolution, which also asks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold a public hearing on the possible effects of rail shipments headed to the planned RAM Terminals facility, was passed unanimously to cheers from an audience that had jeered the council a month before.
While largely symbolic, the resolution has been a bone of contention in recent months, as residents organized by a coalition of environmental groups have urged various local governmental bodies to request such a study and hearing.
The project already has received its permits from the state, though environmental groups have filed suit to try to have them thrown out. The Corps actually is considering only the impact of the terminal on navigable waterways, but the Sierra Club, one of the organizers of the campaign against the proposed terminal, has said that grass-roots support from local government is important to building a case for more study.
Westwego adopted a similar resolution in June, but the Gretna council proceeded more cautiously even after hearing from critics who decried the idea of long trains of uncovered rail cars spewing coal dust through West Bank communities. The critics said rail cars could begin arriving as early as next year, making people sick, damaging homes and reducing property values.
Council members had noted they can’t control what other parishes do, nor can they regulate the railroad. But Mayor Belinda Constant sounded a conciliatory note to close out a marathon council meeting last month, saying the process was ongoing.
She said Wednesday that discussions among council members and with Jefferson Parish yielded the resolution.
“We’ve been doing what we said we would do, which is work the process,” she said.
“Sometimes you can’t rush things because you do the wrong thing,” Councilman Wayne Rau said. “I think we came to a resolution that makes an attempt to stop what you want to stop, the coal coming through Gretna.”
Councilman Joe Marino said the potential impact of the facility on a nearby sediment diversion project to the south helped convince him to support the resolution.
Devin Martin, a Sierra Club organizer, praised the council for the unexpected resolution.
Linda Sanchez, who lives on Amelia Street next to the tracks and who had sparred with the council members only a month before, gave lighthearted thanks to each member individually, before reiterating her opposition to the project.
“No coal trains,” she said, drawing out each word in a low voice while holding a sign above her head.
The council also heard a presentation from Robert Bach, president and chief operating officer of Rio Grande Pacific Railroad, about plans to move the train tracks out of downtown Gretna.
Bach said the $350 million project currently being studied would begin after the rail line is extended six miles to the planned port facility in Plaquemines Parish.
Once that is completed, likely sometime next year, portions of the rail line in downtown Gretna could be moved in the following three to five years, he said.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.